PRETORIA, South Africa — President Jacob Zuma survived a vote to remove him from office Tuesday, in the wake of the most serious in a string of scandals that has tarnished the popularity of the governing African National Congress.
The National Assembly voted down by 233 to 143 a measure that would have forced out the president with three years left in his term.
The vote followed a unanimous ruling last week from South Africa’s Constitutional Court that Zuma violated his oath of office by refusing to pay back public money used to upgrade his personal estate in rural Nkandla.
The South African public protector ruled in 2014 that Zuma knowingly enriched himself and must reimburse the country’s Treasury for non-security upgrades such as a chicken coop, amphitheater and swimming pool at the property. Zuma argued that the pool was a tool to extinguish possible fires. The total value of the upgrades was 240 million rand, more than $15.8 million. Zuma initially ignored the ruling.
The South African Treasury will determine within 40 days how much Zuma needs to pay back.
Zuma apologized after the Constitutional Court ruling, calling it “the final arbiter”. He claimed in an address Friday night that he had always intended to pay back the money, an about-face from earlier statements. He said he had acted on poor legal advice.
“The hope of the governing party is that tomorrow the business of governing goes on,” said Pierre de Vos, a constitutional-law professor at the University of Cape Town. “I don’t think it’ll be business as usual.”
The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, and its more militant sometimes-partner, the Economic Freedom Fighters, brought the case to the Constitutional Court. With the help of several smaller parties, they also led Tuesday’s effort to oust Zuma.
“All the current ANC leaders are corrupt,” Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, said on the floor of the National Assembly before the vote, referring to Zuma’s party. “And some are just more corrupt than others. Nobody in the ANC is immune from the cancer of corruption.”
Just last month, Zuma sailed through a no-confidence vote in Parliament brought by the Democratic Alliance. That vote followed a series of controversies surrounding the president.
In December, Zuma fired respected Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and replaced him with a backbencher from Parliament, David van Rooyen. Van Rooyen’s term lasted just four days. He was replaced by a former finance minister, Pravin Gordhan.
In a related scandal, high-ranking members of the government admitted that a wealthy family of business owners, the Guptas, and not the president, had offered them positions in government. The Guptas are close friends of the president. The Guptas and Zuma deny the allegations.
The turmoil in the Finance Ministry unnerved investors, said Busisiwe Radebe, an economist with Johannesburg-based Nedbank. She said in an interview that “politics has come front and center” in South Africa, reflected in the erratic behavior of the rand. “When Nene was fired, we saw the rand tumble,” Radebe said.
The opposite happened, she said, when the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Mogoeng Mogoeng, read the decision against Zuma from the bench last week, declaring that South Africa would not allow an unchecked abuse of state power. The rand strengthened to a four-month high that day.
There are signs that South Africans’ long-held reverence for the ANC, which was founded in the early 20th century and led the armed struggle against the apartheid government, is declining.
Opposition parties and ANC stalwarts alike have called for Zuma’s resignation. Anti-apartheid leader Ahmed Kathrada, who spent decades in jail with former president Nelson Mandela, penned an open letter to Zuma late last week. He wrote, “Dear Comrade President, don’t you think your stay as president will only serve to deepen the crisis of confidence in government of the country?”
“There’s a whole coming-of-age generation that doesn’t have the loyalty to the ANC,” said political analyst Ayesha Kajee.
She predicted that the ANC would continue its hold on rural South Africa in municipal elections later this year but that the party is likely to lose support in major urban areas.
Amid Tuesday’s debate, Zuma issued a statement saying he did not violate his oath of office, despite the Constitutional Court determining that he “failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the land.”
Kajee said a younger generation of voters doesn’t understand why the ANC closes ranks around Zuma.
Zuma has led the ANC since 2007, when he wrested control of the party from former president Thabo Mbeki. The party will meet next year to determine who will be its next leader.
De Vos, from the University of Cape Town, said that a president does not necessarily need to be the leader of his or her party but that Mbeki resigned the presidency soon after losing control of the ANC. The professor added that the controversies swirling around Zuma have led to the creation of factions at the highest levels of the party.
“You can’t have a proxy war in the cabinet of pro-Zuma and anti-Zuma factions. It’s hard to get anything done then,” he said.