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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Bringing Down the House?: Legislative and Political Limits on Anticorruption Efforts in South Africa

A swimming pool. A cattle corral. An amphitheater. These are the sorts of ostensible “security upgrades” at Nkandla, the home of South African president Jacob Zuma, which filled the Public Protector’s report on the misuse of state funds.  As Eden pointed out in a previous post, these salacious details spread through the South African media like a firestorm, leading to calls for President Zuma to resign—or at least pay back the money—and adding to the growing reputation of Thuli Madonsela, South Africa’s “Public Protector“, an ombudsman-like position constitutionally charged with investigating improper government conduct.

Madonsela, who helped draft South Africa’s current constitution, was unanimously nominated by a National Assembly committee and appointed by President Zuma in 2009.  Though as Public Protector she is unaffiliated with any political party, she was previously a member of the African National Congress, the party that has dominated South African politics since the end of apartheid.  Her persistence in fighting corruption, though, seems to have come as a surprise to her former compatriots, who have resorted to personal attacks; the deputy defense minister, for example, recently accused her of being a CIA spy.  In a country which has been repeatedly criticized for inadequately addressing corruption, Madonsela’s investigations into cabinet officials and the police commissioner have provided one of the few signs of accountability.  Her report on the expenditures at Nkandla, which calls for President Zuma to make a partial repayment, is her highest-profile work thus far.

However, despite all the praise directed towards Madonsela—like inclusion in Time’s “100 Most Influential People” of 2014—the furor around “Nkandlagate” has revealed several severe limitations on the office of the Public Protector. Continue reading