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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