February 3, 2016 / 6:37 AM / 2 years ago

South Africa's Zuma offers to foot part of home improvements bill

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma attends the opening ceremony of the 26th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) at the AU headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 30, 2016.Tiksa Negeri

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African President Jacob Zuma proposed footing part of the bill for state-funded improvements to his rural home, some of which anti-graft authorities said benefited him personally in a report that triggered a political scandal.

Zuma, who previously said he did not owe the state a refund, said he would allow the country's auditor general and finance minister to decide how much of the 250 million rand ($15 million) refurbishment he should pay back.

The 2013 security upgrade, which included a cattle enclosure and amphitheatre, has been heavily criticised by the opposition and news media.

It also risks damaging Zuma's governing African National Congress' showing in municipal elections expected after May, though the party has comfortably won every election since toppling white apartheid rule in 1994.

Zuma had proposed the solution in order to "achieve an end to the drawn-out dispute", the presidency said in a statement late on Tuesday - a week before the constitutional court is due to rule on whether the president should reimburse the state.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said in a 2014 report that Zuma had "benefited unduly" from some of the refurbishments.

UNDER FIRE

With a crisis in Africa's most industrialised economy causing widespread hardship, Zuma has faced rising criticism of his leadership since he secured a second term in office in 2014.

He came under fire in December when he changed finance ministers twice in a week, sending the rand plummeting and alarming investors.[ nL8N14307J]

The sacking of Nhlanhla Nene in favour of relatively unknown and untested David van Rooyen, who he then replaced with the experienced Pravin Gordhan, clouded Zuma's political reputation.

Ratings agencies have warned of credit downgrades if Pretoria fails to keep prudent fiscal policies.

The militant opposition left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), meanwhile, has repeatedly heckled Zuma in parliament over his refusal to reimburse the home improvements.

It and the biggest opposition party, Democratic Alliance (DA), asked the Constitutional Court to rule on whether the president is liable, and a hearing has been set for Tuesday.

Zuma's lawyers have proposed settling the case, according to the opposition parties, who say they want the hearing to go ahead.

"President Zuma has a habit of backing down only when he's in a corner with absolutely nowhere else to go. He did that with the finance minister," NKC African Economics political analyst Gary van Staden said.

"It's not going to help the ANC although they'll put a positive spin on it," he said, referring to the municipal elections.

($1 = 16.1483 rand)

Reporting by Stella Mapenzauswa; Editing by James Macharia and John Stonestreet

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