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Home improvements could doom S. Africa's president

The Constitutional Court of South Africa -- the nation's highest judiciary arbiter -- has found that President Jacob Zuma violated the constitution by failing to pay back public funds used to upgrade his personal home.

After years of prevaricating and two years after the Public Protector found that the president needed to pay for non-security upgrades to his private home in Nkandla, a full bench of the Constitutional Court on Thursday laid the matter to rest, finding that Zuma and the National Assembly had indeed breached the constitution.

In a unanimous and scathing judgement Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng ruled that Zuma and the National Assembly had violated the constitution in challenging and ignoring the binding remedial action of the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, in relation to the residence.

This story is ultimately a modern reworking of the biblical David vs. Goliath tale. In this version, South Africa's softly spoken, unassuming Public Protector Thuli Madonsela slays both a corrupt president and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party that blindly supported him.

The story took root seven years ago when Zuma spent $16 million to upgrade his personal home in Nkandla, in South Africa's KwaZulu Natal province. Zuma and his supporters argued the upgrades were necessary to improve security at his private villa.

A general view of the Nkandla home of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma
A general view of the Nkandla home of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, Aug. 2, 2012. REUTERS

The matter was taken to the Public Protector for investigation, and Madonsela said in a damning report that the president had indeed used public funds to upgrade his home illegally.

She revealed that some of the money had been spent, not on security upgrades, but on a list of additions including a swimming pool, a visitor's reception area, a cattle pen or "kraal" as it's known in South Africa, and a chicken run.

Madonsela ordered the president to pay back the money that had been used on the non-security upgrades, but left it up to the National Treasury to determine the precise amount. And that is where the problem began.

Parliament conducted its own investigation, which absolved the president of any wrong doing or liability. The lawmakers determined that all the renovations were for legitimate security purposes, and even went so far as to produce an absurd video demonstrating how the swimming pool was actually a "fire pool," from which the water could be used in the event of a fire breaking out at the complex.

Opposition parties, civic organisations and even some members within the ANC have been deeply unhappy about what effectively amounted to a blatant disregard for the constitution. The president and his supporters argued the Public Protector's rulings were only recommendations and, therefore, not binding.

The opposition Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters petitioned the constitutional court and, on Thursday, the Public Protector's decision was vindicated.

The Chief Justice ruled that the remedial action taken by the Public Protector against the president was, in fact, binding, and that the failure of the president to comply with this remedial action was inconsistent with the constitution and invalid.

The National Treasury will now determine the reasonable percentage of the costs of those features that were non-security improvements, including the reception area, the chicken run, the kraal and the swimming pool, to be paid by the president.

The court ordered the treasury to report back within 60 days, and said Zuma must personally pay the designated sum within 45 days of the court's approval of the report.

The court also ruled that President Zuma should reprimand government ministers involved in the upgrades, as directed by the Public Protector's report, and that the resolution passed by the National Assembly absolving Zuma from punishment be officially set aside.

It was an important day in South Africa; the highest court in the land has in no uncertain terms ruled that President Zuma and the parliament failed to uphold the constitution.

The judgement is a far-reaching one that could have serious consequences. Opposition parties have begun proceedings to impeach Zuma.

Under South African law, a president can be impeached following a grave violation of the constitution, but it has to be supported by a two-thirds majority in parliament. At present, the ruling ANC controls the National Assembly.

The victory has been hailed as a momentous one for South Africa's young constitutional democracy. It is being seen as a day when the rule of law has been upheld, and the independence of the judiciary has been affirmed.

Filed by CBS News South Africa correspondent Debora Patta.

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