from Africa in Transition

The Constitution and Rule of Law Reaffirmed in South Africa

April 1, 2016

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On March 31, the eleven justices of South Africa’s highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court, ruled unanimously that President Jacob Zuma and the National Assembly had violated the Constitution. The president, the court ruled, had improperly spent public money on his private estate, Nkandla. The National Assembly had improperly defended the president by refusing to implement the ruling of the public protector, a constitutionally mandated official, when she concluded that the expenditure had been improper.

In his public statement, the chief justice, a Zuma appointee, said, “The president failed to uphold, defend and respect the constitution.” He characterized the public protector as a “Biblical David” fighting against the “Goliath of corruption.” The Constitution and the rule of law, he continued, was a “sharp and mighty sword that stands ready to chop the ugly head of impunity from its stiffened neck.” He also said that “ours is a genuine and vibrant constitutional democracy capable of self-correction and self-preservation.”

The two largest opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters, took the Nkandla case to the Constitutional Court. The ruling highlights the effectiveness of opposition parties even though Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) has a large parliamentary majority. The ruling also illustrates the independence of the judiciary, and reaffirms constitutional entities designed to protect citizens from abusive state power, such as the public protector.

The DA is saying that it will seek Zuma’s impeachment and hopes that many ANC parliamentarians will vote with the opposition. Over the past several months, disenchantment with Zuma has grown within the ANC. It is also possible that the ANC will “recall” Zuma as party leader, as it did Thabo Mbeki. If it does so, under South Africa’s proportional system of parliamentary representation, Zuma would be required to resign the presidency, as Mbeki did. Such a step might be attractive because it would forestall impeachment. However, it is also possible that the ANC might rally around Zuma, at least through this summer’s local and provincial election.

For now, however, South Africans appear ebullient over the Court’s ruling. South Africa’s currency, the rand (ZAR), hit a nearly four-month high against the U.S. dollar following the ruling.

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