JOHANNESBURG — South Africa's top anti-corruption official has found that President Jacob Zuma "benefited unduly" from government money spent to improve his personal home. She is calling for Zuma to pay back some of the nearly $23 million (R246 million) - but the opposition and some ordinary citizens are calling for something more: impeachment.
With just seven weeks to go before national elections, South African President Jacob Zuma should be canvassing for votes for his ruling African National Congress party.
Instead, in the wake of a damning report by the nation’s anti-corruption czar, he’s fending off calls for him to resign.
This week, South African Public Protector Thuli Madonsela released a 400-page report that said Zuma committed an ethical lapse by allowing about $23 million in state money to be spent on what were described as security upgrades to his private home in rural KwaZulu-Natal province.
Madonsela said the upgrades - which included a swimming pool, a cattle enclosure, a visitors’ center and an amphitheater - went beyond what was reasonably required for a president’s security.
She also said some of the upgrades could be “legitimately classified as unlawful” and ordered him to repay some of the costs.
The opposition Democratic Alliance has said it will call for formal impeachment proceedings in hope of unseating the president and preventing him from ever holding public office again.
Party spokesman Mmusi Maimane says, “Our view is that the building of the Nkandla homestead, the home of President Jacob Zuma, is in fact a violation of the code of ethics in terms of how leaders must behave in executive office, and therefore President Zuma, in our view, he is not fit to lead this country, for he has failed to protect the assets of this country."
Defending the costs
Zuma’s camp said the improvements were necessary security measures. The $255,000 swimming pool was described in official documents as a “fire pool” because firefighters could ostensibly draw from its sparkling blue water to fight conflagrations.
Those expenditures have angered many South Africans given the nation's continuing struggle with poverty and inequality. About 3 million South Africans don’t have access to electricity. The average black South African household earns the equivalent of just $5,500 a year, according to the census.
Maimane says the public protector’s report, which implicated several high-level public officials, also illustrates a trend in South Africa.
"What the report essentially proves is that it’s not only President Zuma who was involved, but there were a number of ministers … who worked together in order to be able to deliver that project. Which means that we’re not only dealing with individual corruption, we are also dealing with a systematic corruption.”
Zuma’s expenditures, Madonsela noted, are also large compared to state-funded security measures at the homes of former South African presidents. She noted that the state paid about $2.9 million for security upgrades at President Nelson Mandela’s two private residences.
Focus on Zuma
Speaking about the presidency's response to the opposition's calls for Zuma’s impeachment in the wake of this report, Zuma's spokesman Mac Maharaj said, "Their positions were taken even before the report was issued. "I was sitting and listening to the report being presented by the public protector, and that is when I saw the report, and it’s a 430-page report. And clearly the DA had said that they wanted to impeach him earlier because they said he had misled parliament and lied to parliament. That has not been the finding. But I do not wish to engage with them on what is essentially an electioneering campaign.”
This is not Zuma’s first brush with corruption allegations or with the criminal justice system. He was charged and cleared of rape in 2006. And just before he became president in 2009, corruption charges against him were dropped.
Maharaj also said that South Africans are free to express their opinion of Zuma.
Recently, they have done that in increasingly vocal ways. Talk radio in Johannesburg spilled over with anti-Zuma vitriol on Thursday, with callers ranting that the funds spent on the president's house could have been used to build schools, hospitals and other infrastructure that South Africa so badly needs.
And Zuma’s recent public appearances have been met with boos. In December, thousands of people even booed him as he spoke at a memorial service for Mandela.