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Edward Love
 
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Looking back at "Nkandlagate"

23 January 2014, 14:09

Finding the right house is an exciting but time-consuming process. We might go through an estate agent, or type “houses for sale” into google and follow the link – or, if we’re feeling particularly spur-of-the-moment, drive around our neighbourhood in search of a picket that says: For Sale.

Once we’ve found our dream home, buying the house is an investment that we work our entire adult lives towards. Even when we’ve paid it off in full, we still work to furnish, maintain and secure it.

But not if you’re Jacob Zuma. No, if you’re President Zuma, you have a piece of land cherry-picked for you. Then you deem that land private, get entangled in a bond, evict nearby residences for the purposes of expansion, award vast sums of money to unqualified architects to perform this expansion and, finally, hide the astronomical bill from the public. To date, Zuma’s property (“palatial estate” might be a better phrase) in Nkandla has received upgrades to the tune of R200 million. That’s taxpayer’s money being pumped into a homestead brimming with nonessential luxuries.  

News of Nkandlagate first broke in 2012 and caused a national uproar. A nationwide scandal erupted at the doorstep of the ANC and the media quickly acted, added the obligatory suffix “gate” to “Nkandla.” Eighteen months on, Jeanne Prinsloo’s thoughtful article on the matter for the Daily Maverick illustrates that there was no bias directed at the ANC on principle – rather, it was the ANC’s practises that caused the uproar. The ANC has always maintained that certain sections of the media has it in for them. Prinsloo contends that it isn’t the case.

So for those living in the dark, how did the story unfold?

In 2012, when the story broke, the ANC responded to the criticism with customary indifference and almost admirable gumption, claiming that the compound required extensive upgrades to make it secure for visiting heads of state. So why was the money being used to air condition every room of every house, too? What really rankled was the ANC’s attitude to it all. They seemed to be asking: why does the public need to know how public funds are being used in the first place?

Today, the Nkandla homestead has 31 new buildings (some costing as much as R8 million each) nicely air-conditioned rooms (over a million rand was spent on this amenity alone), a cattle culvert, safe haven and security guards’ tuck shop. Aerial photographs give a visual proof of this greed, showing a luxury gated estate full of chalets, houses and recreational buildings. This is an estate for Zuma’s entire brood; but it’s not the president’s only homestead. He owns other houses around the country too.  

As soon as the story emerged, the DA responded with vigour (and a little naivety). Zille and a team of DA members visited Nkandla, in Kwazulu-Natal, to get a closer look at where all the money was going. But police blocked the road to the homestead warning Zille that a large group of ANC members were gathered further up the road. As a result, the DA would have to be kept at bay for fear of violence. Zille questioned why buses carrying ANC supporters were being allowed through, but didn’t get any clarification.

A cynic might suggest the ANC members were strategically brought in, and that the police were instructed to use this gambit to ward off the DA. The credulous might argue Zuma’s fervent army of support is simply too energetic to be repressed.

What Nkandlagate brings into question is whether it’s ethical to question the private life of a head of state. But as Jeanne Prinsloo exposes in her reasoned piece, Zuma’s use of public money to fund his homestead in Nkandla immediately makes it a matter of public debate.

Zuma has always distanced himself from the issue, with the president portraying himself as a victim in the story. At first he claimed that the money used to fund Nkandla was his own (which begs the question: how does a head of state accrue over R200 million?). Next, he argued that he wasn’t aware the money was being spent in the first place (again: surely a head of state would know of work being done to his home?).

On January 28, 2013, a letter leaked by the City Press revealed that Zuma did know. In the document, former Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde writes to Zuma to update him on the progress of Nkandla.

As for the architect who oversaw Nkandla’s upgrade, Minenhle Makhanya is no longer a qualified architect, but was personally selected by the president.  The R18 million Makhanya received for the job is, in the words of Pietermaritzburg architect Lew Bryan, “[astonishing]”.

“We haven’t seen that kind of fee in 10 years,” he said.

In the end it’s ironic that Zuma has chosen to have his palace built in his hometown, where poverty is rife and the impoverished go hungry. The prodigal son has returned; but he’s returned blithely indifferent to the concerns of his voters.

Perhaps brandishing Zuma as the sole perpetrator in “Nkandlagate” is wrong. He has after all abstained – for the time being – from signing the “Secrecy Bill” into law. Perhaps the majority of the blame lies squarely at the feet of his minders. But as a president, criticisms of his rule are his to bear.  All I know is that I’m grateful our free press continues to expose corruption. We might have to foot the bill for Zuma’s polygamy, but at least we know about it.

Don’t forget the air conditioning in every room, either. 

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