South Africa’s Public Protector stated in a recent report that taxpayer money funded improvements to Nkandla, President Jacob Zuma’s private estate. The public protector found this “unconscionable, excessive, and caused a misappropriation of public funds.” President Zuma made his first public comment on March 31, in remarks carried by a TV station. He said, “I never did anything wrong.” In effect, he is blaming his subordinates within the governing African National Congress (ANC).
That isn’t resonating with at least some of the South African public. For example, former ANC minister Pallo Jordan writes that “even though it has many commendable achievements in healthcare, education, and social security, the record of [Zuma’s] administration is littered with scandal.” Current deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe is calling on the administration to implement the Public Protector’s recommendations, including that Zuma repay a percentage of the cost of the improvements to Nkandla. Some blogosphere comments, especially from the townships, are considerably more heated. For example, one wrote, “It is not fair that some of us live in shacks, homeless, and we see a person living in a home that cost more than R200 million. Even worse, a president, ai! Some kids are taught under trees, no clinics and other things, and he takes so much money. It is not fair.” It is widely believed that the funds used at Nkandla had been budgeted for urban housing for the poor.
On the other hand, the ANC Youth League, now allied with Zuma, has denounced the public protector. But, secretary general of the ANC Gwede Mantashe sharply criticized the Youth League for their comments. In a strong affirmation of South Africa’s institutions of accountability, he said, “the ANC reaffirms its support and confidence in the institutions established by our Constitution to protect and strengthen our democratic order. The Office of the Public Protector is an integral component of this machinery.”
The Public Protector functions as a public ombudsman. The current incumbent, Thuli Madonsela, is known for her independence, integrity – and fearlessness.
Conclusions from this episode: Zuma has been in trouble before because of corruption; Nkandla fits the pattern. Motlanthe’s statement illustrates that South Africa’s institutions of accountability are the strongest in Africa. And the ANC as a whole is far from willing to compromise those institutions to save Zuma embarrassment.
Will Nkandla sway the electorate in next month’s general elections? Probably not by much. Voting in South Africa is governed by proportional representation, and remains largely a racial census, with most black Africans supporting the ANC. Indeed, it is almost unimaginable that the ANC will lose a majority, though opposition parties may gain ground at its expense. The next government of South Africa will be an ANC one. But, the ANC’s share of the total vote might fall from its current 66 percent. If it should fall below 60 percent, Zuma would be in deep trouble with his own party. The ANC removed his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, when it concluded that he was too distant from the ANC constituency. It could do so again.