President Jacob Zuma is happiest when leading crowds of faithful followers in a song of his own composition dating from the struggle against apartheid called Bring Me My Machine Gun. He was deeply unhappy on Friday night when he found himself apologising on television for having broken South Africa’s constitution.

Make no mistake: the denouement of the long-running scandal known to all South Africans as “Nkandla” could herald the downfall of Zuma. Nkandla is the president’s private estate in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. From 2009 onwards, pounds 13 million of public money was spent on providing Nkandla with features that Zulu chiefs like Zuma consider essential, including a new cattle kraal, chicken run, amphitheatre and — more mundanely — a swimming pool.

After this was exposed, the official charged with rooting out corruption, known as the “Public Protector”, issued a scathing report and ordered Zuma to repay the money. At first, he refused. Then he fought back by commissioning rival reports from more friendly officials who made energetic efforts to argue that it was absolutely right for the state to pay for the president’s private swimming pool.

The defence — believe it or not — was that the water could be used to fight a fire, so the pool was an essential security measure. The whole matter eventually ended up before the Constitutional Court - the highest such body in the land — and the verdict of the nine judges was categorical. By disobeying the Public Protector’s order to repay the government money spent on Nkandla, Zuma had broken his oath of office to uphold the constitution. Even if the president had somehow been advised that he was within his rights, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng solemnly declared that this was no excuse for the “illegality of his conduct”.

Hence Zuma’s show of contrition on television. In truth, the battle over Nkandla amounts to far more than a tussle over one man’s career. What is taking place is nothing less than a titanic struggle for the survival of the very institutions that distinguish South Africa from the rest of the continent.

Other African presidents treat the law and the constitution as personal playthings. When it suits them, they ignore or rewrite these supposedly solemn texts. Any judges who dare to protest can “go to hell” — in the pithy phrase used by Robert Mugabe when Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court struck down his entire land seizure programme. Zuma probably hoped he could get away with much the same behaviour. His seven-year presidency has amounted to one long confrontation between his own instincts and the country’s institutions. Tragically, Zuma has won many of these battles.

On his watch, some bulwarks of a constitutional democracy — notably the police and the national prosecuting authority — have been corroded and suborned. Even before he won the presidency in 2009, Zuma faced no less than 783 charges of alleged corruption, fraud and racketeering. All of these accusations were dropped on procedural grounds. South Africa’s institutions proved unequal to the task of deciding Zuma’s guilt or innocence and allowing the country to know the truth, one way or the other. Dominated by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), parliament has consistently failed to restrain him. The civil service, meanwhile, is now riddled with corruption, particularly at local and provincial level.

But the Nkandla affair has demonstrated the resilience of the core institutions at the heart of South Africa’s democracy. The media — particularly the Mail & Guardian, a weekly newspaper — did their job by exposing the misuse of public money. Then the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, was able to throw the metaphorical book at Zuma. Her report on Nkandla in 2014, ironically entitled Secure in Comfort, bluntly accused the president of taxpayer-funded “opulence on a grand scale” and ordered him to repay the money.

Last week, the Constitutional Court fulfilled its role by finding that Zuma had broken the law. There is scarcely anywhere else in Africa where a Chief Justice could censure a president in such unsparing terms and elicit if not a resignation, then at least an apology. In their epic struggle with Zuma, South Africa’s institutions have won the latest round.


— Telegraph Group Limited, London 2016


David Blair is the chief foreign correspondent for the Telegraph.