Editorial: Lessons from Zuma's senseless battle over Nkandla

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and President Jacob Zuma at a meeting with senior members of the judiciary in August 2015. (Moeletsi Mabe, Gallo)

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and President Jacob Zuma at a meeting with senior members of the judiciary in August 2015. (Moeletsi Mabe, Gallo)

Jacob Zuma fought a Stalingrad defence on the nearly 800 corruption charges brought against him, using every method he and his advisers could lay their hands on (including the dodgy “spy tapes”), and it appeared to be successful: the charges were dropped and he became ANC president.

The charges may yet come back, but at the time Zuma must have felt that the dropping of the charges was a final victory after the long gruelling slog of a battle fought, as it were, street by street and house by house.

He might have thought better of pursuing a Stalingrad defence, however, in his dealings with the public protector and her report on Nkandla. This was, after all, the work of an office mandated by the Constitution to investigate matters precisely of the Nkandla ilk – public funds spent for private gain.

To treat the public protector like an enemy, and her report as an attack to be repulsed on many fronts at once, the president simply delayed the inevitable. This week a full Bench of the Constitutional Court ruled that, yes, Zuma would have to repay some of the state money spent on his private home, and that, yes, the public protector’s powers were such that you could not wiggle out of acting on her recommendations on remedies to be applied.

If Zuma is a president who, as some have asserted, does not understand the rule of law, or doesn’t believe it applies to him, then this judgment should help him develop such an understanding. The presidency has said, already, that the president accepts and respects the judgment – so there is hope.

Even if it doesn’t reset his moral compass, Zuma could perhaps gather from the judgment that there are other ways of dealing with opponents such as a constitutionally mandated public protector. He may see how bad it looked to be ducking and diving in the face of her scrupulous report.

Maybe he recognises, now, that many South Africans saw the public protector just as Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng did when he described her as a crusader against corruption and malfeasance in government, fighting a David-and-Goliath battle against the mighty state, a state with many resources to be mobilised in defence of the president – from the police minister’s stint as a videographer to the many expensive lawyers required to keep the case going.

At least the president finally hired one who was willing to be absolutely clear about the constitutional issues involved, and who could make that clear to the president.

What that meant, essentially, was that once the case got to the Constitutional Court Zuma had to concede almost at once. This battle of Stalingrad was over. What has happened since is that the judges of the court, led by the chief justice, have delivered a careful but hard-hitting judgment that demands accountability of the executive, reaffirms the principle of service to the Constitution, and asserts of the public protector: “In the execution of her investigative, reporting or remedial powers, she is not to be inhibited, undermined or sabotaged.”

Hopefully lessons have been learned.

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