Zuma’s second big U-turn sign of waning power—he ‘could leave before term ends’

South African president, who is in his mid-term, 'might be reaching that point of being a lame duck'

SOUTH African President Jacob Zuma’s agreement to repay state funds spent on renovating his private home marked his second major climbdown in two months and showed his grip on power is weakening.

After denying liability for two years, Zuma said on Tuesday he was ready to refund part of the 215.9 million rand ($13.3 million) used to upgrade his private home at Nkandla in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal Province. He made the announcement before a February 9 hearing by the nation’s highest court to decide whether he was liable to refund some of the costs. 

In December, Zuma was forced to backtrack on the appointment of a little-known lawmaker as finance minister after the rand and nation’s bonds dived.

“His legal advisers advised him that he would lose that action and, therefore, he is trying to settle it,” Steven Friedman, director for the Center for the Study of Democracy, said Wednesday by phone from Johannesburg. 

“It means that the system is working and healthy. It means politicians can’t just do what they like.”

With the ruling African National Congress due to hold internal elections late next year, Zuma’s power is waning and he may come under pressure to quit before his current term ends in 2019, according to Somadoda Fikeni, a political analyst at the University of South Africa. 

The ANC is also facing challenges to its control of several major cities, including Pretoria, the capital, in local elections due between May and August.

‘Dented invincibility’

“The president’s sense of political invincibility seems to have been dented by cumulative events,” Fikeni said by phone from Pretoria. “President Zuma, who is in his mid-term, might be reaching that point of being a lame duck.”

The lawsuit at the Constitutional Court was brought by the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters, the two main opposition parties, to force Zuma to comply with a finding by the nation’s graft ombudsman that he should repay state money spent on an amphitheater, cattle and chicken enclosures and a swimming pool at his Nkandla home. 

In a letter to the court, Zuma proposed a settlement that would allow the auditor-general and finance minister to determine his liability.

Opposition leader Mmusi Maimune. (AFP)

“President Zuma has maintained his willingness to contribute to any increase in value to his property,” his office said in an e-mailed statement. “To achieve an end to the drawn- out dispute in a manner that meets the Public Protector’s recommendations and is beyond political reproach, the president proposes that the determination of the amount he is to pay should be independently and impartially determined.” 

The opposition Democratic Alliance said it will press ahead with the court case.

‘Offer not enough’

“The DA notes the settlement offer made by President Zuma, but contends that the contents of his settlement offer do not comply with the remedial actions as ordered by the Public Protector,” party leader Mmusi Maimane told journalists in Cape Town.

Demands by opposition lawmakers for Zuma to pay back the money disrupted his annual state-of-the-nation address and several other parliamentary sittings last year. Zuma is due to deliver this year’s speech on February 11, and the EFF had threatened to stage further protests.

“A real political challenge is coming from the DA and EFF,” Nic Borain, an adviser to BNP Paribas Securities South Africa, said by phone on Wednesday from Cape Town. 

“This is the easiest thing for the ANC to get out of the way. It is the low-hanging fruit.”

—Bloomberg, With assistance from Paul Vecchiatto.

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