Could an embezzlement scandal end the famed-Africa National Congress’ 20-year hold over South African politics?
South African President Jacob Zuma faces controversy after a public prosecutor reported he spent 246 million rand in public funds— close to $25 million— on a swimming pool, cattle enclosure, amphitheater and other improvements to his Nkandla estate. Public prosecutor Thuli Madonsela’s 444 page report accuses Zuma of “benefitting unduly” from the improvements in a manner which was “unconscionable, excessive and caused a misappropriation of public funds.”
As South Africa’s May 7 elections approach, the corruption scandal threatens to end or damage Zuma’s African National Congress party’s political dominance since the end of apartheid. Though South Africa sits in the middle of the pack in corruption rankings worldwide, Zuma’s actions may turn voters against the longtime majority ANC and towards other parties. The opposition Democratic Alliance party has already targeted the issue, sending an anti-Zuma text message to 1.5 million voters in the Gauteng providence. The ANC lost a court case against the message, which read, “The Nkandla Report shows how Zuma stole your money to build his R246m home.”
Zuma’s Nkandla compound in the KwaZulu-Natal providence recently underwent renovations including a pool, performing arts amphitheater, chicken coop, cattle pen, clinic and visitor center. In the public prosecutor’s report, entitled “Secure in Comfort,” she alleges the renovations were classified as “security improvements” and the pool as a piece of “firefighting equipment” to justify the public expense. Prosecutor Madonsela recommended Zuma repay a “reasonable percentage of the cost” of the improvements, which totaled over eight times the expense of security improvements to two of President Nelson Mandela’s residences.
In addition, the report contends Nkandla construction funds were diverted from inner-city service programs, while public works ministers gave incorrect information about the renovations. “Due to lack of proper demand management and planning,” Madonsela wrote, “service delivery programs of the Department of Public Works were negatively affected.”
Zuma, however, recently responded in a television interview that he did not know of the renovations and has written that the report was “tainted by a lack of proper procedure.” Zuma said a cabinet investigation cleared him of misdeeds and will wait for a third report from South Africa’s anti-corruption Special Investigation Unit at the end of the month.
Madonsela’s report shows South Africa has the institutions necessary to expose government corruption, but Zuma must not be allowed to evade any financial responsibility for his actions, lest South Africa becomes a display of how national leaders can steal with impunity. Depending on outcome of the Special Investigation Unit report and the May elections, the ANC may want to start looking for a new president.