South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma will pay back some of the public funds used to upgrade his private home, his office said on Wednesday, attempting to end a two-year scandal that has plagued his government.
Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, the country’s ombudswoman, ruled in 2014 that Mr Zuma and his family had “benefited unduly” from the work on Mr Zuma’s rural residence of Nkandla.
Among the supposed security upgrades were a swimming pool described as a fire-fighting facility, a chicken run, a cattle enclosure, an amphitheatre and a visitors’ centre.
“To achieve an end to the drawn-out dispute, the president proposes that the determination of the amount he is to pay should be independently and impartially determined,” said a presidential statement.
The exact sum will be determined by the treasury and police ministry, it added.
Mr Zuma had previously denied any wrongdoing over the upgrades, with opposition lawmakers often disrupting his parliamentary speeches by chanting “Pay back the money!”
His change of position came ahead of a Constitutional Court hearing next week as opposition parties the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) unite in a bid to force him to refund the cash.
The upgrades were valued in 2014 at about 216 million rand (then worth $24 million, KSh2.4 billion).
The DA vowed to go ahead with the legal case, despite Mr Zuma’s apparent climb down.
DA leader Mmusi Maimane told journalists that Mr Zuma had “done everything to undermine the work of the public protector and the constitution” over the Nkandla controversy.
All parties are jostling for advantage ahead of municipal elections due later this year that could see a fall in support for Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) party, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid.
Mr Zuma’s statement stressed that he “remains critical of a number of factual aspects and legal conclusions” contained in the damning public ombudsman report.
The president, who has often been accused of allowing corruption to flourish since he came to power in 2009, is under pressure over South Africa’s sharply slowing economy.
He will make his annual state of the nation address in parliament next Thursday.
The occasion descended into chaos last year when EFF lawmakers scuffled with security after interrupting him to protest over the Nkandla scandal.
The Public Protector had asked Mr Zuma to pay part of the money on the project, a request which was rejected by the President.
The report identifies irregularities that occurred in the course of upgrades by the Department of Public Works, in liaison with other departments, to the traditional family home the president has had at Nkandla for many years.
The EFF and DA have applied directly to the Constitutional Court for orders declaring that the steps taken by the president to give effect to the Public Protector’s remedial action are unconstitutional.
Zuma notes that the Public Protector accepts that only five aspects of the project give rise to a need for any determination and that this determination still requires the proportion of the item and the reasonable cost to be established.
The president also supports the need for finality in the matter of the Public Protector’s report.
However, he believes and contends in his affidavits filed in court that the DA and the EFF have misinterpreted and/or are manipulating the Public Protector’s report for the purposes of political expediency.
None of the EFF, the DA and the Public Protector have responded to the president’s proposal, which was made in his answering affidavit in November last year.