South Africa’s constitution is being undermined by government actions including President Jacob Zuma’s refusal to abide by a finding that he repay public money used to renovate his private residence, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said.
“We’ve dropped the ball in terms of constitutional compliance,” Madonsela, 52, said in an interview at Bloomberg’s Johannesburg office on Tuesday. “We have an awakening moment in that the things we built into our constitution are being called upon.”
Zuma, 73, has faced a public backlash since Madonsela found in a report last year that he unfairly benefited from the 216 million rand ($17 million) of upgrades to his home in Nkandla in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, which were said to be for security. Opposition parties have rejected Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko’s decision that Zuma isn’t liable to repay for improvements that included a swimming pool, amphitheater and enclosures for cattle and chickens.
The president and his office may still act to resolve the matter, she said.
“The other scenario is that they do the right thing,” Madonsela said. “It’s not over until it’s over.”
The findings of the graft ombudsman can’t be overruled by the government as her office is protected by the constitution, Madonsela said. While the law is being tested, the country isn’t at the point of a constitutional crisis, she said.
“There’s turbulence, but thank God the people involved in crafting our constitution anticipated that even the most benevolent of politicians may allow self-interest, or through their mistakes could get off track,” Madonsela said.
Madonsela recommended that Zuma pay back money for the non-security upgrades made on the compound and that he must consult with other government departments to determine how much.
The Economic Freedom Fighters, the second-largest opposition party led by expelled ANC youth leader Julius Malema, has vowed to continue a campaign to force Zuma to pay for the renovations. Its members were dragged out of parliament by security staff for disrupting the president’s annual state-of-the-nation speech in February. A parliamentary committee is drafting a report on Nhleko’s findings.
Zuma told lawmakers in Cape Town on Thursday it would be premature for him to say whether he was liable to pay anything before Parliament concludes its work.
“It’s very clear we will never get an answer,” Malema said in response. “Let’s meet in court.”
Madonsela said she won’t take legal action, but anyone, including the four complainants that asked her office to investigate the Nkandla spending, can take it to the courts on the grounds that Zuma “acted irrationally” in response to her recommendations.
It is in the country’s best interests to have the Nkandla matter concluded soon, Madonsela said.
“It has a bit of a polarizing effect,” she said. “There are tempers in some of the political quarters that you would want to cool down because when there’s that toxic anger in the leadership, it somehow filters through.”
The soft-spoken mother of two was appointed in October 2009 and her non-renewable term ends next year. A lawyer who was part of a team that drafted the nation’s constitution two decades ago, she plans to return to the legal profession or become an academic when she leaves her position.
Corruption, municipal inefficiency, immigration issues and bribery in the government’s procurement processes are the top grievances the public protector’s office is asked to investigate, Deputy Public Protector Kevin Malunga said in the same interview.
“We are getting mainly to the point of the ‘West African facilitation fee’ approach, where people always need a facilitation fee to get a tender through,” he said.
South Africa ranked 67 out of 174 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2014. More than 70 percent of South Africans say corruption has worsened since 2010, a survey released by the nation’s statistics office on Dec. 4 showed.
Madonsela plans to do a study about why the number of cases received by her office has fallen 53 percent from last year to about 4,795 this year.
“I hope the question marks about whether to implement our findings has not discouraged others to say: ‘What’s the point?” she said.