South Africa’s highest court on Thursday ordered President Jacob Zuma to reimburse some of the taxpayers’ money he spent upgrading his private home, saying his refusal to repay violated the constitution.
The Constitutional Court unanimously ruled that Mr Zuma’s failure to follow binding recommendations made two years ago by South Africa’s public protector to repay some of the costs of additions to his Nkandla residence was inconsistent with the constitution.
The president “failed to uphold, defend and respect the constitution,” said Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. “[Mr Zuma] was duty bound to, but did not assist and protect, the public protector.”
The ruling comes as Mr Zuma faces a political storm in South Africa following allegations that members of the Gupta family, who run a business empire, used their closeness to the president to influence government appointments and business decisions.
Mr Zuma has insisted there is no outside influence on his cabinet decisions, and the Gupta family have denied the claims.
The African National Congress, South Africa’s governing party, affirmed its confidence in Mr Zuma earlier this month. But observers say the scandal has weakened a president already struggling with an economic slowdown, high unemployment and an ailing currency.
The so-called Nkandlagate scandal has for critics of the president evolved into a symbol of the corruption and patronage they say have flourished under Mr Zuma’s leadership.
In a 2014 report, Thuli Madonsela, the public protector, found Mr Zuma had unduly benefited from a lavish upgrade to his personal homestead, and recommended he reimburse the state for part of the costs.
Government officials have said the upgrades were security measures, but the public protector found that state funds were used to build features including a visitors’ centre, swimming pool and cattle pen. Last month, Mr Zuma indicated he was willing to repay some of the money.
The ruling prompted immediate calls for Mr Zuma’s impeachment by the Democratic Alliance, one of the opposition parties that brought the matter to court along with the socialist Economic Freedom Fighters party.
“Today’s ruling is clear in this regard: President Jacob Zuma’s action amounts to a serious violation of the constitution, and constitutes grounds for impeachment,” said Mmusi Maimane, the DA leader.
However, a president can be impeached in South Africa only by a two-thirds vote in the National Assembly, and the ANC holds a parliamentary majority.
Pierre de Vos, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Cape Town, said: “The opposition is not really going to be the ones to decide this. “[The ANC] have the majority, and the MPs will take their cue from the leadership.”
The ANC said it respected the judgment and welcomed the “clarity provided by the court on the binding nature of the powers of the public protector”. The ruling party added it would study the ruling in detail before commenting further.
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