Jacob Zuma Violated the Constitution. Now What?

It’s hard to imagine a court decision more dramatic than the South African Constitutional Court’s March 31 ruling on President Jacob Zuma’s misuse of public funds at his private home in Nkandla. In powerful language that sometimes verged on purple prose, the ConCourt announced that the Public Protector, the constitutionally-created institution charged with investigating improper government conduct, is the “embodiment of a biblical David, … who fights the most powerful and very well-resourced Goliath[:]  impropriety and corruption by government officials.” In order for the Public Protector to effectively serve that function, the ConCourt decided, the remedial action she recommends must be binding. By failing to follow her prescribed remedial action, which included paying back a “reasonable percentage” of the misused funds, Zuma had failed in his “obligation[] to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution.”

However, the scene in the National Assembly, South Africa’s lower (and more important) house of Parliament, on May 4 was equally dramatic—though much less dignified. With President Zuma scheduled to make his first appearance before the National Assembly since the Nkandla judgment–and with the reopening of a different judgment by a lower court that could lead to the investigation into another corruption-related incident–the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party demanded that he not be allowed to speak since he was clearly “illegitimate.” EFF members and the Speaker of the National Assembly got into a “screaming match,” which eventually escalated into a fight. As Parliamentary protection service officers forcibly removed the EFF from the legislature, the EFF members continued to shout insults and declare that it was the President, not they, that should be forced to leave. The day also involved the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Zuma’s party, ruling that any quotations from the Nkandla judgment during the legislative session were out of order, and the Democratic Alliance (DA), the primary opposition party, mocking Zuma and calling him the “looter in chief.” Putting a punctuation mark on this fracas was a five-day ban on the EFF’s National Assembly representatives and a decision by the remaining opposition parties to boycott the National Assembly the following day.

The ConCourt’s ruling, though, is far more than just a prompt for an exciting 24 hours in the National Assembly.  Looking further down the road, what does the Nkandla judgment mean for South Africa?

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Why Hasn’t Jacob Zuma’s Latest Anti-Anticorruption Effort Succeeded Yet?

Any time South African President Jacob Zuma is involved in something, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that corruption will somehow be involved as well. That’s particularly true in relation to the tension between him and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. This tension has recently manifested itself through a fractious battle, often via proxies, over decades-old happenings in the South African Revenue Service (SARS), an institution of which Gordhan used to be the head.

The attack upon Gordhan is largely motivated by concerns that he has the power and willingness to cut off some of Zuma’s corrupt lines of patronage. So far, nothing new: Zuma has a history of going after anyone who he perceives as threatening the network of graft which he’s woven. What’s particularly noteworthy this time, though, is that he’s facing some difficulty getting Gordhan out of his way—and that difficulty might hint at some hope for anticorruption advocates.

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Diamonds are an Autocrat’s Best Friend: Corruption in Zimbabwe’s Mining Industry

Earlier this month, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president of nearly 30 years, announced his intention to nationalize diamond mining. He explained the decision by blaming corruption in the industry for “robbing [the Zimbabwean people] of our wealth,” estimating the government’s loss in the past seven years as upwards of $13 billion. For a country with an annual budget of $4 billion, 30% of which comes from the money that does make its way from the diamond mines to the government’s coffers through taxes and other fees, this move has enormous economic significance. Factor in Zimbabwe’s recent attempts to convince international donors and investors that its basket case economic days are behind it, and the ripple effects of Mugabe’s decision are likely to be even more important.

Undoubtedly, Mugabe is right about one thing: there’s been plenty of corruption surrounding the diamonds of Marange, a district in eastern Zimbabwe, since the 2006 realization that the pebble-like objects “so common that children were using them in their catapults to shoot birds” actually represented “the richest diamond field ever seen by several orders of magnitude.” The trouble is that Mugabe is the one mostly responsible for that corruption. In fact, this nationalization plan is best understood as the next step in Mugabe’s utilization of corruption at the mines for his own benefit.

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You Can’t Go Home Again: A Surprising Concession from South Africa’s President

“Nkandlagate” has been the gift that keeps on giving for South Africa’s satirists and social media quipsters. It started with the scandal itself: Jacob Zuma, the country’s president, spent at least 256 million rand (what was then more than US$30 million) in public funds to install a swimming pool, amphitheater, chicken run, and cattle corral at his private home, called Nkandla. When the expenditures were revealed, he claimed they were “security upgrades.” After all, the most natural way to ensure you have enough water on hand to put out a fire is to install a swimming pool, right? Political cartoonists and puppet-starring TV shows alike have weighed in on Zuma’s recalcitrance in the face of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report demanding that Zuma pay back some of the misused funds.

The jokes are understandable: after years of living with the consequences of an infamous arms deal–the “original sin” that “infected [the country’s] politics” with corruption when the lack of consequences for its high-level participants fostered a sense of impunity–many South Africans have turned to dark comedy as a form of release.

The need for that type of gallows humor may have dipped slightly earlier this month.  President Zuma, after refusing for years to admit he’d done anything wrong and publicly mocking the outcry about Nkandla, finally conceded to the country’s highest court that he should have obeyed the findings of Madonsela’s report. Rather than insisting that President Zuma did nothing illegal, his defense team is now arguing that the president made a mere “mistake of law.”  What explains this stunning reversal? And what will the implications be?

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What Does China’s Anticorruption Campaign Mean for Africa?

In advance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s attendance at a China-Africa summit in Johannesburg last December, a flurry of news articles in African outlets—especially in Zimbabwe—optimistically highlighted the role China could play in helping African countries curb corruption. As previously discussed on the blog, in the first three years of his tenure, President Xi has made a crusade against corruption an important rhetorical part of his presidency, and backed up those words with actions (though some have questioned his techniques). It’s equally well-established that China has become very involved with Africa.  China increasingly depends on Africa’s mineral resources to feed China’s growing industries, and Chinese businesses see Africa as a potentially lucrative export market. Many African countries seeks partners, like China, that are willing to invest in infrastructure and business development. Though there has been recent pushback to China’s actions, and even a decline in Chinese investment in Africa, President Xi’s $60 billion pledge at the summit indicates China will continue to be an important player in the region for the foreseeable future.

Many commentators hope that the combination of these two factors—China’s anticorruption campaign and its substantial economic engagement with Africa—will give a boost to anticorruption efforts in Africa. Alas, those hopes are overstated.

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Order from the Court: Judiciaries as a Bulwark Against Legislative Corruption in Vanuatu

Imagine that one-third of the members of your national legislature were convicted of bribery, and then decided to pardon themselves, and you’ll only begin to appreciate the scope and oddity of Vanuatu’s current political drama.

On October 9, Vanuatu’s Supreme Court convicted 14 of the 33 members of the ni-Vanuatu Parliament of bribery. The politicians, who at the time of their unlawful conduct included the deputy prime minister and four other members of the cabinet, had last year accepted around US$9,000 each to support a vote of no confidence in the prime minister—that is, to kick him out of office. Though the prime minister discovered the scheme and suspended the participants, they successfully sued for an end to their suspension, and promptly followed through on their plan to eject the sitting government.  Now holding Parliament’s top-ranked positions themselves, the bribe-takers nevertheless fell under police investigation, and a trial against them began this September.

After the bribe-takers were convicted but before they were sentenced, the president, who was not a member of their coalition, took a trip abroad. Under Vanuatu’s constitution, that left the Parliament speaker in charge. The problem? That Parliament speaker was one of the people convicted of bribery—and he promptly decided to use his temporary power to suspend the Ombudsman (the officer charged with investigating corruption) and pardon himself and his co-conspirators. The president quickly returned to Vanuatu and revoked the pardons, but it’s not clear that he had the legal authority to do so. With the Court of Appeals having recently rejected the appeals of the members of Parliament (MPs), the MPs are now kicked out of the legislature, and new elections may have to be held.

As idiosyncratic as this story may seem, it still speaks to some deeper truths about the problem of corruption in the Pacific Islands—and may yet resolve itself in a way that provides some clues about effective ways to fight it. So, what went wrong in Vanuatu, and what can still go right?

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How Corruption Politics Facilitated Hungary’s Response to the Refugee Crisis

Politicians using xenophobia as a tool for their political benefit is unfortunately common; the past few years have seen populist, far-right parties across Europe take stances that involve stirring nationalist sentiments by portraying their countries as figuratively—and, in their eyes, sometimes literally—under attack by foreigners who have come to reside there. Still, even as those parties’ popularity increases, they have largely not yet succeeded in taking full control of government. Not so in Hungary, where Prime Minister Victor Orbán’s centralist, ultra-nationalist variant on the theme holds sway, and where the country’s escalating efforts to “keep Europe Christian” by excluding Syrian refugees (as well as many other predominantly Muslim migrants and refugees) are extreme even compared to its neighbors.

The reasons for Orbán’s rise to and maintain power are numerous and complex. What has largely gone overlooked in media reports so far, however, is the important role that corruption has played, first in helping Orbán to the premiership, and then in influencing his anti-refugee/migrant policy.

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