JOHANNESBURG: South African President Jacob Zuma on Friday denied deliberate misconduct after the country’s top court found he violated the constitution over the use of public funds to upgrade his private residence.
But he said he would abide by the court’s verdict, which ordered him to re-pay money spent on a swimming pool, chicken run, cattle enclosure and amphitheater built at his rural home as so-called “security” measures.
Zuma made it clear he had no plans to step down after the Constitutional Court delivered its damning judgement on Thursday over the upgrades to his Nkandla property in KwaZulu-Natal province.
“Any action that has been found not to be in keeping with the constitution happened because of a different approach and different legal advice,” the president said in a televised address that some predicted would be a resignation speech.
“It all happened in good faith and there was no deliberate effort or intention to subvert the constitution on my part,” he added.
Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, the country’s ombudswoman, ruled in 2014 that Zumahad “benefited unduly” from the work on the traditional homestead, and that he should re-fund some of the money.
The president reacted by ordering two government investigations that cleared his name — including a report by the police minister which concluded that the swimming pool was a fire-fighting precaution.
The work was valued in 2014 at 216 million rand (then $24 million).
“I respect the finding that failure to comply with… the public protector is inconsistent with the constitution,” Zuma said. “The matter has caused a lot of frustration and confusion, for which I apologize. “I urge all parties to respect the judgement and abide by it.”
The Nkandla scandal became a symbol of alleged widespread corruption and greed within the African National Congress (ANC) party, which has ruled since Nelson Mandela won the first post-apartheid elections in 1994.
‘A broken President’?
“The president took to the podium to mislead the nation today,” Mmusi Maimane, head of the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), told reporters after the speech. “It is completely unacceptable. It is a completely hollow statement from a broken President.”
The DA is pushing for Zuma to be impeached after the court said that he had “failed to uphold, defend and respect the constitution” in ignoring the Ombudswoman’s directives.
But Zuma retains a strong grip on parliament through his dominant leadership of the ANC, and any impeachment bid looked unlikely to succeed.
“Zuma is essentially washing his hands of it. This is not somebody who is going to go quietly,” analyst Judith February told the ENCA news channel.
Opposition parties hope the controversy will bring gains in local elections this year, as frustration grows over 25 percent unemployment and grinding poverty for many black people more than 20 years after the end of white-minority rule.
Zuma has recently endured renewed corruption allegations after deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas said he was offered a promotion by the Guptas, an Indian business family said to hold huge sway over the President.
Zuma, 73, has faced growing criticism since he sacked two finance ministers within days in December, triggering a collapse in the rand and a major withdrawal of foreign investors.
He will have completed two terms in 2019 and is not eligible to run for president again, but the ANC could replace him ahead of the next election.
The party leadership denied there were any calls from activists for him to resign.
“We welcome this well-written, strongly balanced judgement,” said ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe. “This is a victory for our young democracy and shows systems we created are alive and strong.” AFP