Pretoria - President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday dodged damaging allegations that R246-million of taxpayers' money was spent unlawfully upgrading his private home, prompting opposition calls for his impeachment.
Facing an April 2 deadline to respond to a scathing report by the public protector, just weeks before South Africans go to the polls, Zuma's office said he would respond fully at a later date.
Instead, a terse statement said “the president remains concerned about the allegations of maladministration and impropriety around procurement in the Nkandla project”.
Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found the upgrades - which include a helipad, swimming pool, amphitheatre, private clinic and visitors' centre - were unlawful and said Zuma should refund taxpayers.
Zuma, 71, whose popularity is flagging, pointedly put the public protector's findings on an equal basis as two other reports into the scandal which critics claim may be more favourable, including one by his own ministers.
Zuma indicated he would not comment in full until the third report, by the Special Investigating Unit - a body established by presidential proclamation - was completed.
A statement said Zuma would then give “full and proper consideration” to the reports and inform Parliament about “decisive executive interventions”.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance accused Zuma of “playing games with Parliament” and said Wednesday's statement was “nothing more than a delaying tactic”.
“The truth is that President Zuma is running away from accountability. We won't let this happen without a fight,” said the DA's parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko.
The Democratic Alliance has launched a criminal corruption case against Zuma and plans impeachment proceedings.
“We will continue to push on with our impeachment motion, and we will continue to seek legal advice on what steps can be taken to force the president to abide by these recommendations,” said Mazibuko.
Given the ANC's vast parliamentary majority, the bid for impeachment is likely to fail. But it could prove politically embarrassing ahead of elections.
Zuma will seek a second five-year term on May 7, in what are expected to be South Africa's most fiercely fought elections since 1994, when apartheid ended.
The ANC's chief whip welcomed Zuma's response, saying it “illustrates the seriousness with which he regards the matter”.
Earlier this week, Zuma shifted blame for the overspending to government officials.
“They did this without telling me,” he told the local television channel ANN7. “So why should I pay for something I did not ask for?”