• South African opposition may seek president's impeachment
  • Zuma has agreed to repay some money spent on home renovations

South Africa’s highest court will decide Thursday if President Jacob Zuma violated the constitution by failing to repay taxpayer money spent on upgrading his private home, a judgment that may further weaken him as he faces the biggest governance scandal of his seven years in office.

Lawyers for the two main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters, told the Constitutional Court last month that Zuma, 73, breached the constitution by failing to abide by graft ombudsman Thuli Madonsela’s 2014 findings that he should repay some of the 215.9 million rand ($14.4 million) spent on his home.

The court’s ruling comes in the wake of allegations by senior ruling African National Congress officials that the Guptas, a wealthy Indian family who are friends with the president and in business with his son, offered them cabinet posts in exchange for business concessions. The accusations have weakened an administration already facing an economy that’s set to grow at the slowest pace since the 2009 recession and a possible credit-rating downgrade. Standard & Poor’s has a negative outlook on its BBB- rating, one level above junk. Moody’s Investors Service rates South Africa’s debt one level higher.

Zuma ‘Weakened’

“Zuma’s position within the ANC has weakened,” Daryl Glaser, a politics professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said by phone on Wednesday. “Zuma might begin to feel quite punch-drunk, and his supporters might waver even more if the court rules against him in a decisive way, especially if it opens the way to impeachment.”

While the EFF has pledged to seek Zuma’s impeachment should the court find he violated the constitution, its bid probably won’t succeed because the ANC holds more than 60 percent of the seats in parliament. Previous attempts by opposition parties to oust Zuma have failed.

A special police unit known as the Hawks said Wednesday it’s investigating corruption allegations against members of the Gupta family, following a formal request by the Democratic Alliance.

Zuma, a former intelligence operative who’s led the ANC since December 2007, initially denied requesting the renovations at his home at Nkandla in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal Province that included a swimming pool and a chicken run. Probes by the police ministry and ANC-dominated parliament cleared him of wrongdoing. The president backtracked when the case came before the Constitutional Court, and his lawyers said he accepted Madonsela’s recommendations had to be implemented.

Parliament Decides

“There was an admission that some of the money is going to be paid back,” Marinus Weichers, a retired constitutional law professor, said by phone from Pretoria, the capital. “By telling the court it will be repaid, he’s given effect to the report of the Public Protector. My opinion is that the matter will be referred back to parliament, which will have to determine the extent of his liability.”

While Zuma’s concession that Madonsela’s call for some repayment is binding amounts to an admission of a constitutional breach because he failed to safeguard state resources, any decision to remove him would have to be taken by the National Assembly rather than the courts, according to Pierre de Vos, a law professor at the University of Cape Town.

Political Case

“These are political issues that are not really decided by the members of parliament but by the leadership of the governing party,” De Vos said. “Unless there’s a change inside the party leadership and a hardening of positions against the president, there will not be a very drastic response by the National Assembly.”

Zuma’s December decision to replace his respected finance minister with an unknown lawmaker, the allegations that cabinet posts were being offered in exchange for business concessions, a resurgent opposition and divisions within the ANC in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal have all increased the president’s vulnerability, according to Glaser.

“A Constitutional Court ruling against Zuma would be another blow,” Glaser said. “We are into the unknown and it’s very difficult to predict what might happen.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE