Cape Town - A series of setbacks in beleaguered president Jacob Zuma's battle against corruption allegations has sparked fresh speculation that he could be forced out of office.
Controversy over millions of dollars of taxpayers' money spent on his rural home and the dropping of graft charges against him, returned to haunt Zuma with renewed force over the past week.
On Thursday he lost a five-year court battle to keep secret the so-called “spy tapes” that got him off the hook on more than 700 charges of fraud and corruption in 2009, shortly before he became president.
The Supreme Court of Appeal ordered that the tapes, which allegedly showed political interference in the prosecution process, be released to the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) within five days.
This could possibly lead to the charges against him being reinstated.
On the same day Public Protector Thuli Madonsela told a news conference she would press ahead with demands that Zuma refund some of the $24 million spent on “security upgrades” at his private home.
That amount of money would buy several mansions in the best suburbs in Johannesburg or on the beachfront in Cape Town, and Madonsela's report on the issue sparked widespread outrage.
This took its most visible form last week when Zuma hedged his answers on the scandal in parliament, leading to chaotic scenes as a group of radical lawmakers jumped to their feet and yelled repeatedly: “Pay back the money!”
That unprecedented outburst was described by veteran commentator Allister Sparks as “a catalytic event that is going to have a transformative impact on our national politics.
“It could well mark the beginning of the end of Zuma's presidency,” Sparks wrote in his syndicated column.
He was not alone in this assessment.
“Are we building up to the removal of President Jacob Zuma?” asked an editorial in the South African daily The Times on Friday.
The paper referred to the ousting by the ruling African National Congress of former president Thabo Mbeki from its leadership in 2007, which paved the way for Zuma to take over the presidency.
Business Day newspaper said the ruling on the tapes was an opportunity for the ANC to “consider having a discussion with Zuma over an exit strategy Ä he is too much of a liability”.
While all this was going on, Zuma was on a mysterious week-long trip to Russia, where his only major engagement was a meeting with President Vladimir Putin.
Although the trip was billed as a bid to promote trade, none of the relevant ministers travelled with him, and he was said to be having “rest periods”.
Zuma's health has also been under scrutiny. In June he was hospitalised for two days for fatigue and tests before taking a week off.
But Zuma has weathered storms before, earning the sobriquet “Teflon president” - nothing sticks - for having remained in office despite all the allegations against him.
And there could still be long legal battles ahead, with analysts cautioning that the appeal court's decision on the “spy tapes” would not necessarily lead to the reinstatement of the corruption charges against him.
But if he is seen as a liability by his own party, which was retained power with a reduced majority in May's election, he could be ousted - as Zuma ousted Mbeki - through an internal leadership election.