By David Dolan
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's main opposition party laid criminal charges against President Jacob Zuma on Thursday, accusing him of "flagrant abuse" of public money over $23 million in upgrades to his home that included a swimming pool and a cattle enclosure.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) filed eight charges of corruption against Zuma at a police station near his Nkandla homestead, a party spokeswoman said.
The sprawling compound in rural KwaZulu-Natal province has become a growing headache for Zuma and his ruling ANC just six weeks before an election.
South Africa's corruption watchdog on Wednesday said Zuma benefitted "unduly" from the state-funded security upgrades, accusing him of conduct "inconsistent with his office". It said he should pay for some of the unnecessary buildings, which also included an amphitheatre and a chicken run.
The findings from Public Protector Thuli Madonsela's two-year investigation are widely seen as damaging for scandal-plagued Zuma and may harm his ruling African National Congress (ANC) in the May 7 polls, although the party, which has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994, is still expected to win.
Under South African law, an individual or an institution can lay criminal charges through a legal filing. The DA submission was expected to go the National Prosecuting Authority, which would decide whether there was a formal case to answer.
The charges were filed a day after the DA said it planned to start impeachment proceedings against Zuma in parliament.
Impeachment is the correct course of action for this flagrant abuse of public money," Lindiwe Mazibuko, the opposition's leader in the assembly, said in a statement.
But given the ANC's two-thirds majority in parliament, the move to impeach Zuma is certain to fail. Nor is it likely to be a game-changer for the DA in the elections, as many blacks see the party as representing privileged whites.
Still, Madonsela's report reinforces the perception among many South Africans that Zuma and senior members of the ANC have grown rich as millions remain mired in poverty. While the ruling party leapt to Zuma's defense on Thursday, it admitted the scandal could be damaging with the elections looming.
"Let's accept that it is a concern, because anything that is bringing negative publicity to the ANC is a source of concern," ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe told a news conference.
"NOT MY VOTE"
Mantashe also accused opposition parties of trying to "sensationalize" the report, adding that the call for impeachment was a "premeditated position" that had nothing to do with Madonsela's findings.
"It is politicking," he said.
Presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj earlier told a local radio that Zuma himself had been concerned about "cost over-runs" in the construction and had appointed a task force to investigate.
Zuma, a polygamous Zulu traditionalist, has ruled South Africa since winning a 2009 election after his supporters ousted rival and predecessor Thabo Mbeki from the ANC leadership and the presidency. He has been dogged by scandals throughout his political career.
"He will definitely not get my vote," said Johannesburg resident Elise Nightingale. "Instead of spending money on his own house, why doesn't he concentrate on things in the country, like education?"
In the last three months, townships around Johannesburg and Pretoria have been rocked by daily protests, mainly by young blacks stuck in poverty and unemployment that has changed little in the two decades since white-minority rule.
"This is a pretty egregious case," said David Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch, an anti-graft watchdog set up in 2012 with the backing of South Africa's largest trade union grouping COSATU, an ally of the ANC.
"The consequences are pretty dismal. We don't want to end up like Russia or India even where this is so built into the system that it is impossible to eradicate."
Zuma was charged but acquitted of rape in 2006, and only became president in 2009 after corruption charges against him were dropped on a technicality days before the polls. While in office he fathered a child with the daughter of a close friend.
The extent of his unpopularity in urban areas was highlighted by the boos that greeted him at a memorial to Mandela at Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium in December, although he still enjoys strong support in the countryside.
(Additional reporting by Siyabonga Sishi,; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Angus MacSwan)