The $23 Million Home Improvement


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South African opposition parties on Tuesday asked the country’s top court to rule on whether President Jacob Zuma broke the law by spending 250 million rand (then $23 million) on a state-funded security upgrade to his home.

The constitutional court will decide in the next few days if it will hear a case to decide whether a report from South Africa’s anti-graft authority, accusing Zuma of misusing state funds, was legally binding. The 2014 report from the public protector said that Zuma had personally benefited from some of the refurbishments to his country home in Nkandla, which included a cattle enclosure, swimming pool and amphitheater. After months of denying any wrongdoing, Zuma said last week that he would pay back money spent on improvements that did not relate to security and asked the auditor general and finance minister to decide an appropriate figure. The Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition party, and the radical left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) do not believe Zuma’s concession goes far enough. They are hoping that a case in the constitutional court will put pressure on Zuma and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) ahead of municipal elections this year and help them win control of some cities, including the capital Pretoria.

Thousands of EFF members, led by former ANC youth league leader Julius Malema, were expected to march on Tuesday to the constitutional court to protest against Zuma’s leadership. With a sharp economic slowdown causing widespread hardship, Zuma has faced mounting criticism of his leadership since he secured a second term in office in 2014. “The only acceptable solution for us is if Zuma resigns,” said EFF-member Alpheus Mogashoa, dancing and singing with crowds of anti-Zuma campaigners outside the court. “Zuma is the problem with South Africa.”

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 215.9 million rand ($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 its 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.”