What does a president’s house say about his country?

2015-03-15 15:00

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Nkandla is only one of seven residences available to President Jacob Zuma. The question no one asks is: what does where a leader lives say about his country? Melinda Silverman finds out

Not a week goes by without Nkandla in the headlines. There are stories about cost over-runs, corruption, taxpayers having to foot the bill and whether swimming pools are essential to fighting fires.

But nobody is asking about the “look” of the house. What does the style of Nkandla say about the president’s taste? The residence of a national leader can tell us a lot about his country.

President Jacob Zuma’s private residence in Nkandla shows an expansive architectural taste

Anyone strolling along Downing Street in central London would have a hard time identifying Prime Minister David Cameron’s residence.

It’s an ordinary London row house with the number 10 above the front door.

Although the house has spread out over the years, spilling into neighbouring 11 and 12, the only clue that this house is any different is the presence of a bobby at the front door.

The prime minister’s home in London is unassuming – the only hint of something out of the ordinary is the police guard. Picture: Tim Graham/Getty Images

Not so for President Barack Obama.

His house, subject to continuous paint jobs to keep the white exterior fresh, is an opulent confection.

The tall Grecian columns, domed roof and two wings that stretch out symmetrically from the central portico make explicit references to classical architecture.

They are an attempt to tell us we are in the presence of a great power and the US is part of the magnificent Western classical tradition.

This is a bit cheeky, given that the country was an upstart colony that only emerged 2?000 years after such classical forms had graced the ancient city of Athens in Greece.

Scores of US presidents have called this imposing building home. Picture: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

But you get the picture. Buildings tell stories that are combinations of fiction and truth.

Back home in South Africa, our president has no fewer than five presidential dwellings, as well as access to two other properties that have been used as presidential houses in the past.

Verily, the man is spoilt for choice. Not all these buildings started off as grand homes.

De Tuynhuys in Cape Town, for example, which dates back to 1674 and was the first building to be a government residence, began as a garden shed.

De Tuynhuys in Cape Town was built in 1674 and was the first building in SA to be used as a government residence

Groote Schuur started out as a barn. Genadendal, the house President Jacob Zuma now uses when visiting the Mother City, was a grain store.

All these buildings underwent continual renovations over the centuries to make them suitable residences, and they are all in Cape Dutch style, with whitewashed walls and distinctive gables.

The president’s house in Pretoria was built in 1940 and called Libertas.

Mahlamba Ndlopfu in Pretoria was built in 1940 and was originally called Libertas

It was designed by Gerard Moerdyk, who also designed the Voortrekker Monument. Despite being 1?500km from the Cape, Moerdyk used the same Cape Dutch style, which he considered the only authentic style to signify Afrikaner identity. Today, the house is called Mahlamba Ndlopfu.

According to the presidential website, the entire east wing has recently been adapted to accommodate President Zuma’s home offices and, significantly, “the spousal office”.

When in Durban, the president has use of Dr John L Dube House, formerly known as Kings House, a colonial heap built in the early 1900s to house the governors of Natal in a manner suitable for their “state and dignity”.

The architectural influences here are explicitly British and classical, which comes from a colony always keen to assert its Englishness.

The Edwardian-style house dominates a ridge in Morningside, an affluent neighbourhood that offers spectacular views out towards the Indian Ocean.

In Johannesburg in 2005, President Zuma, who was then the deputy president, finally got to choose his own home, although he didn’t have a say in its design.

The house was ready-made: a double-storey face-brick building at the top of a steep driveway. The house, called Idle Winds before it was bought for R3.6?million, is located in up-market Forest Town.

Other than the tropical vegetation, which may have reminded President Zuma of KwaZulu-Natal, the house is a bland representative of 1980s suburban architecture – modern, rectilinear – with lots of space to park many cars.

But it is in Nkandla, President Zuma’s birthplace, that he has finally been able to express his architectural tastes. These appear somewhat expansive.

The sprawling complex consists of countless freestanding buildings, in no particular order, that cascade down a verdant hill in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Some buildings are rectilinear, others circular.

The one stylistic feature that unites allthe structures is the use of thatch, presumably a reference to traditional Zulu architecture, but bearing a strong resemblance to holiday resorts and game parks.

The larger buildings are rectilinear, suggesting modern planning techniques were required to accommodate modern uses. In contrast, most of the small buildings – including the rondavels that were built when President Zuma first initiated the development – are circular.

The main complex is surrounded by a high security fence, suggesting someone who feels less than at home in the place of his birth.

Outside the confines of the fenced area are a range of other buildings and amenities – a helipad, some Astroturf soccer fields, more thatch-roofed houses and an entire townhouse complex that would not look out of place in an up-market suburb.

Most buildings are plastered and painted, and will require ongoing and expensive maintenance – a bill we can only hope President Zuma will pay himself.

The most conspicuous building within the main complex is the entertainment facility.

It is a domed structure that looks like a traditional beehive hut on steroids – as if the carefully woven grass structures of the surrounding villages had been fed into the magnification feature of a photocopy machine and blown up to monstrous proportions.

This domed structure is, in turn, situated on a colonnaded concrete platform to provide additional height and grandeur.

President Zuma has not benefited from the professional services of a prize-winning architect. Until the Nkandla controversy, few people had heard of architect Minenhle Makhanya, a part-time pig farmer who was deregistered after failing to pay his fees to the SA Council for the Architectural Profession.

So, how far have we moved in the transition from Cape Dutch to Zulu thatch, via Edwardian splendour and suburban schlock? Not far at all, actually.

The scale might have changed, from the modest double-storey house that was built in the 17th century to the rambling Nkandla complex.

Our security requirements have also moved on, from a wrought-iron gate that opened into a public park to a compound that was declared a “national key point” in 2010.

There have certainly been improvements in indoor plumbing.

Although De Tuynhuys looks startlingly different to Nkandla, their respective architects were in search of the same thing: an imagined authenticity that would portray our national identity – where we’ve come from, and where we’re hoping to go.

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