President Jacob Zuma is ready to pay back some of the state funds used to upgrade his private home, his lawyer said, as he urged South Africa’s highest court not to issue any ruling that opposition parties could exploit for political gain.
“This is a delicate time in a dangerous year,” the president’s lawyer, Jeremy Gauntlett, told the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg on Tuesday. While the opposition Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters parties may try to bring impeachment proceedings against Zuma, “it would be wrong that this court be put in a position to make some wide order which can be used.”
Gauntlett spoke as the court considered a lawsuit by the DA and the EFF seeking to obtain a ruling that Zuma violated South Africa’s constitution by failing to obey a finding by the nation’s graft ombudsman, the Public Protector, that he repay some of state funds spent on upgrading his home. During the hearing, thousands of protesters outside the chamber chanted “pay back the money.”
The case has focused national attention on the spending of R215.9 million ($13.4 million) of taxpayers’ money to upgrade Zuma’s home in Nkandla in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, including on building an amphitheater, cattle and chicken enclosures and a swimming pool. The hearing takes place two days before Zuma gives his state-of-the-nation speech, which the EFF has threatened to disrupt for a second year.
The two main opposition parties are trying to step up pressure on Zuma and his African National Congress as they bid to challenge the ruling party in some of South Africa’s main cities in local elections scheduled between May and August.
“We submit that the president defied the Public Protector’s orders and his defiance violated the constitution,” Wim Trengrove, the EFF’s lawyer, said. “The National Assembly has the power to hold the president accountable and it failed to do so, and so it failed in that constitutional duty. Both the president and the National Assembly failed in their constitutional duty.”
Gauntlett told the court that the president accepted that the Public Protector’s recommendations must be carried out.
“We accept that she wasn’t just making a recommendation but wanted something done,” he said. “Our stance is that it’s action we must take.”
Zuma has said he never requested the upgrade and the police minister found that the renovations were security-related.
“There’s been an abuse of public resources at an extraordinary scale by one person in a country where people can’t afford housing, health care and basic necessities,” the lawyer for the DA, Anton Katz, told the court. “It’s a breakdown of the rule of law. There’s a rule of man and a rule of law and this case is a clear example of the rule of man.”
©2016 Bloomberg News