Jacob Zuma May Get the Last Laugh on Nkandla

Jacob Zuma answers questions about Nkandla.
President Jacob Zuma answers questions in the South African parliament in Cape Town, August 6, 2015. The Nkandla scandal continues to weigh heavily on Zuma, but it remains unlikely that he will lose his position. RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images

This week, South Africans watched the beginning of the end of the long, sordid Nkandla saga which has dogged President Jacob Zuma for over six years. The case was brought to the court by South Africa's political opposition, including the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who were thrown out of the opening session of parliament on Thursday after repeatedly disrupting Zuma's State of the Nation Address.

It has been a tough week for the President, who could face a lengthy impeachment process if firebrand EFF leader Julius Malema has his way. Appearing before the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg on Tuesday, Zuma's lawyer Jeremy Gauntlett admitted that the president had made a mistake in choosing to ignore a 2014 report by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, which claimed he had "unduly benefited" from state-funded upgrades to his palatial homestead—which included a swimming pool and amphitheater and totalled 246 million rand ($23 million at the time). The property is in Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal province, near the east coast of South Africa.

The admission was an abrupt departure from years of Zuma insisting that the findings of the Public Protector were not binding. The heart of Tuesday's concession, then, was that Madonsela's office did have a right to exercise executive oversight, and that the President ought to have complied with her instruction that he repay a portion of the costs of the project.

Madonsela has become something of a hero during her seven-year tenure as Public Protector and most of her time in office has been spent addressing Nkandla. The renovations first came to light a month after she took office in 2009; an official complaint was lodged in 2011; she spent five years carrying out a protracted investigation that culminated with the release of the report in 2014; and she battled since then for the President to accept her findings.

When reports of the renovations first surfaced, Zuma and his African National Congress (ANC) party tried to bar the media from covering the story, invoking apartheid-era legislation to stop journalists from taking photos of the buildings. The attempt failed but the ruling ANC party's efforts to gag the media was a chilling sign of the lengths it would go to to protect its leader.

Some political analysts have suggested that Zuma's about-turn is a preemptive move. By admitting that he erred, the President hopes to avoid a Constitutional Court case that could pave the way for an attempt to impeach him. The judges will decide at some point in the next few months whether to move forward with a case, but in the meantime Zuma's position is relatively secure, for now.

With local government elections slated to take place between May and August, the party will not want to make any sudden moves. The ANC cannot afford to impeach or recall its leader in an election year. So the man whose full name—Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma—loosely translates from Zulu as "he who harms you while laughing," may yet emerge from this ongoing crisis with a smile on his face.

This situation is not based on luck alone. Despite a reputation as a peace-maker, Zuma can be ruthless. He has built his power base by stripping the ANC of its greatest assets. Gone are the intellectuals and workers who fostered a culture of internal debate and dialogue within the century-old political party. Many of the party's intellectuals left after the departure of former President Thabo Mbeki in 2009 and the once-mighty workers alliance, the Congress of South African Trade Unions ,is now virtually moribund, captured by a faction of the ANC that is strongly aligned with the president.

The ANC is now stacked with sycophantic politicians who owe their political fortunes to Zuma. An Afrobarometer poll released in November 2015 indicated that public disapproval of the president's performance and perceptions of corruption in the presidency have plummeted in the last two years, from 64 percent in 2011 to 36 percent in 2015.

In spite of widespread discontent about Zuma, the ruling party still has a strong mandate to govern. Even with the spectre of Nkandla hanging over Zuma's head, the ANC won the 2014 elections with a massive 62 percent of the popular vote, streets ahead of the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), who received 22 percent. The gap between the ruling party and the official opposition is explained by an impressive record of delivery. For example, the percentage of households in South Africa that received at least one grant increased from 30 percent in 2003 to 45.5 percent in 2013, and while only 50 percent of South Africans had access to electricity in 1994, that figure had grown to 84 percent at the last census in 2011. In that time the pace of delivery has slowed and the ANC has become embroiled in a series of corruption scandals that have tarnished its image. But, the party still has both the benefits of incumbency and the power of history on its side.

Indeed, the focus on Zuma often overshadows the fundamental challenge of South African politics, which is that voters face a dearth of good choices. The DA is lead by a young man from Soweto, Mmusi Maimane, and has attracted many new members across the color line. Yet it is still perceived as promoting the political and economic interests of white South Africans. The left-wing EFF—who along with the DA spearheaded the campaign for Zuma to face the Constitutional Court over the Nkandla issue—is growing and may in time pose a threat to the ANC. For now, however, the EFF's charismatic leader Malema has his own battles to fight in court. The South African Revenue Service is threatening to renew legal action over 20 million rand ($1.3 million) that has raised questions about the source of his income. Voters who are weary of the President's conduct worry that the EFF boss may be a Zuma-in-waiting.

In the end, much of Zuma's fate will depend on the quality of the candidates put forward by the other parties. If the DA and the EFF field strong candidates and convince voters to abandon the ANC, then Zuma's political fate will be sealed: he will either be recalled or impeached in 2017. If the electorate chooses to stick with the ANC in spite of their disdain for Zuma, then the President will remain in office until 2019 when his term ends. In other words, he may yet get the last laugh.

Sisonke Msimang is a South African writer. She has held fellowships at Yale University and the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., and is working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @Sisonkemsimang.