Zuma Nkandla Homestead

Chopping Ugly Heads off Stiffened Necks

“Constitutionalism, accountability, and the rule of law constitute the sharp and mighty sword that stands ready to chop the ugly head of impunity off its stiffened neck.” Thus the Constitutional Court of South Africa wrote in what is known as The Nkandla Case.

Public funds were used to make improvements to the private home of the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. South Africa’s Public Protector, Thuli Madonzela, investigated these expenditures and found that Mr. Zuma had unduly benefited from them. When the lower house of South Africa’s Parliament, the National Assembly—in which Mr. Zuma’s political party, the African National Congress (ANC), currently has a more than 60% majority—nonetheless exonerated Mr. Zuma, two minority parties in the National Assembly, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Democratic Alliance (DA), took the matter to South Africa’s Constitutional Court.

On March 31, 2016, the Court found that the National Assembly had acted unconstitutionally in failing to respond appropriately to the Public Prosecutor’s report. The Court ordered South Africa’s National Treasury to determine within 60 days of the judgment what part of the expenditures Mr. Zuma is to pay back and further ordered Mr. Zuma to make such payment within 45 days of the Court’s approval of the National Treasury determination.

Mr. Zuma’s subsequent announcement that he intends to comply with the Court’s decision does not appear to have assuaged his critics at home or abroad: both the EFF and the DA have since called for Mr. Zuma’s resignation, as has the New York Times. These follow earlier such calls connected with what had become the buzz word in South Africa’s news media in the weeks preceding the Nkandla decision: state capture (defined as “the control of the state by substantial private interests, the state thereby losing its independence and the power to legislate and act for all”). The buzz is about the wealthy Gupta family, which has been accused of abusing their relationship with Mr. Zuma and his family and affecting political decisions at the highest level to their own advantage.

Among these accusations was that of Mcebisi Jonas, Deputy Minister of Finance, who claims that “Members of the Gupta family offered me the Minister of Finance position.” A former Member of Parliament, Vytjie Mentor, has made similar claims. Accusations such as these are stirring up resistance also within Mr. Zuma’s own ANC. General Siphiwe Nyanda, a former cabinet minister and former chief of the South African National Defence Force, was joined by other former commanding officers in the apartheid-era military wing of the African National Congress in calling for the resignation of President Zuma. Outside the ANC such calls come from every corner: from Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, to Johann Rupert, chair of the investment company Remgro and luxury brands group Richemont and Africa’s fourth richest person.

Governance in South Africa is weak, as Mr. Zuma’s survival as president demonstrates (even though the Constitutional Court’s Nkandla decision suggests that this weakness does not quite constitute a “governance implosion,” as Walter Russell Mead calls it). Partly because of this weakness South Africa has not yet come close to realizing the bright dreams of what it might have accomplished after the end of apartheid. (For example, more than half of all South Africans still live in poverty, as much as 37% of South Africans have to make frequent choices between buying food and paying for other necessities, and 21.7% of South Africans are not able to meet their basic daily nutritional needs.)

The weakness of the South African state has consequences beyond those suffered by its own citizens. Whatever the terminology one prefers for South Africa’s role in its region (some want to call South Africa a regional hegemon, others a pivotal state, others yet a continental partner), South Africa is key to a peaceful and prosperous Africa. The South African state has not only come short in its developmental responsibilities towards its own citizens, it is not contributing to peace and prosperity in Africa. (And given both the ideals that properly guide American foreign policy and America’s national interest, the weakness of the South African state should be of concern to the USA.)

The weakness of South Africa is the result of a generation of political leaders who value self-interest above the national interest, favors to cronies above merit in government appointments and contracts, and the protection of their own privileges above the accomplishment of public justice and prosperity for all South Africans.

But South Africa may yet live up to its constitution: the national purposes as articulated in its preamble, the values enshrined in its founding provisions, its bill of rights, and the democratic political order it prescribes. A “sharp and mighty sword” indeed, one hopes. To quote from its preamble: “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. God bless South Africa.”

Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies.

Photo Credit: President Jacob Zuma’s homestead in the Nkandla District. By John A Forbes, via Wikimedia Commons.

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