On Thursday, the 11 judges of South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled unanimously that President Jacob G. Zuma had broken his oath of office. Mr. Zuma, the court found, had used his position to enrich himself and his family improperly, and had refused to abide by an earlier finding against him from the constitutionally mandated public protector. He had thus, said Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, “failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the land.”
The matter had been brought to the court by the two major opposition parties, the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters and the right-of-center Democratic Alliance. They sought to compel the president to repay the state for nonessential spending on his private residence at Nkandla.
In an address to the nation, Mr. Zuma responded that he respected the Constitution and the judgment; that he had acted “in good faith” in his faulty interpretation of the public protector’s powers; and that he had been poorly advised regarding the overspending on his house. He pledged to repay the money, and apologized for the “confusion and frustration” he had caused — though not for his unconstitutional actions.
Yet it was not the self-enrichment (the precise extent of which is yet to be determined) that outraged South Africans so much as the lengths to which Mr. Zuma went to avoid accounting for it, and thus tried to sidestep checks on the abuse of executive power.
Since he came to power in 2008, Mr. Zuma has combined a Putinesque mastery of the darker arts of statecraft with insouciance toward anything beside his own enrichment and impunity. In December, Mr. Zuma fired his respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, for opposing questionable deals that would enrich Zuma cronies further. In the resulting market instability, the country’s economy lost billions of dollars.
Then, several respected members of his party, the African National Congress, came forward with allegations that an influential business family, the Guptas, had offered them cabinet posts on behalf of the president, in return for favors. At that point, Mr. Zuma’s critics in the party began to assert themselves. Now the highest court in the land has wounded him further, and also censured the A.N.C.-dominated Parliament for failing to check the leader’s abuses.
South Africans can take heart from the judiciary’s resolve against corruption and autocracy, but it is also a devastating indictment of post-apartheid governance. The judgment resets South African democracy to the precepts established by the 1996 Constitution during the presidency of Nelson Mandela.
That Constitution called for a public protector, a watchdog with real teeth, to investigate complaints about the abuse of state power. In 2009, Mr. Zuma appointed to the position Thuli Madonsela, a lawyer and A.N.C. member who turned out to be a fearless crusader against corruption.
When she found against Mr. Zuma over the Nkandla affair, however, the president simply ignored her, and set up his own inquiries to “second-guess” her, as the court put it. Such was the ruling party’s contempt for taxpayers that the police minister declared a chicken run to be a vital security feature of the president’s home, and his swimming pool a fire precaution.
Chief Justice Mogoeng is an evangelical lay preacher, and he reached for the Bible to explain in his ruling the public protector’s role. Ms. Madonsela was, he said, the embodiment of impoverished ordinary people who do not have access to justice, “a biblical David” who represented the public against “the most powerful and very well-resourced Goliath” of official corruption.
Such language draws South Africans back to the struggle against apartheid. “The unchecked abuse of state power,” the chief justice reminded us, “was virtually institutionalized during the apartheid era.”
Mr. Zuma himself went to jail and into exile during that fight; now, he has been found guilty of institutionalizing similar abuse. It is hard to see how he can stay in office.
The opposition parties have begun impeachment proceedings against him, but that strategy will fail: The A.N.C. has an outright majority in Parliament and tends to settle issues behind closed doors. The party could fire Mr. Zuma (as it did his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, in 2008), but after the Constitutional Court judgment, officials insisted that the party would do no such thing, to avoid tearing itself apart.
Keeping him in power, though, could have the same effect. Mr. Zuma secured control of the A.N.C. through intricate networks of patronage, but with local government elections due later in the year, a critical mass of his colleagues are finally viewing him as a liability. While Mr. Zuma remains popular in rural areas, especially his Zulu heartland, he is widely loathed in the cities. A powerful group of A.N.C. veterans, too, has called on him to go.
With Mr. Zuma seemingly determined to hold onto power, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader, Julius Malema, has threatened mass protests, violent if need be, to force him to quit. Despite such populist militancy, however, Mr. Malema has also now found success with a different kind of activism — initiating the Constitutional Court case. After the ruling, he waved a pocket-size copy of the Constitution at reporters, calling it “our bible.” He exclaimed, “We must all live by this book!”
It remains to be seen how Mr. Malema — the leading beneficiary, politically, of last week’s judgment — will reconcile his insurrectionary instincts with constitutionalism. For now, we South Africans who are committed to nonviolence and the democratic aspirations of the Mandela era have little choice but to join Mr. Malema in the streets. We will, at least, be asserting the agency that the Constitution vested in us, and that the court affirmed last week.
Mark Gevisser is the author, most recently, of Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir.