William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Zuma’s gilded battlements besieged by the public protector

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s long delayed report into the expenditure of at least R246-million of taxpayer money on President Jacob Zuma’s rural home at Nkandla is undoubtedly the non-fiction must-read of the year. And equally, were they to be collected into a single volume, the tripartite alliance’s attack dogs’ ongoing attempts at discrediting the report could make it onto the shortlist of the 2014 Alan Paton Award for Fiction.

The report is a magisterial 447-page tome, crafted with lawyerly precision – Madonsela was one of the technical drafters of the South African Constitution – to withstand the shit-storm of obfuscatory lawsuits against her office that it will likely unleash. While the writing is consequently careful rather than elegant, there is wry humour aplenty, including in the title of the report, Secure in Comfort, as she catalogues the four-year transformation of “seven small rondavels and a kraal” into “opulence on a grand scale”.

The KwaZulu-Natal health ministry in 2013 identified Nkandla as one of the “most underserved” areas in the province, with poor ambulance services and an inadequate police presence. Yet instead of citing the medical and policing upgrades where they could also benefit this stricken community, all the police housing was established within the Nkandla compound, as was the “private medical clinic”.

Madonsela writes that the security costs for Zuma’s home were “obscenely excessive” and at several points made the point that the foundation of a constitutional state is that “public resources should primarily be deployed to meet public needs”. The “public needs” she cites are immense.

Some 44% of Nkandla residents between the ages of 15 and 64 are unemployed. Around 10 000 households in the area have no electricity, 7 000 have no piped water and 12 000 have only pit latrines. It was “excessive and unconscionable” that the so-called security upgrades created “an island in a sea of poverty and paucity of public infrastructure”.

This tone of outrage runs throughout the public protector’s report, not unsurprising of a woman who comes from a poor background and whose parents were street traders. It is likely that a similar reaction of outrage from the voting public, more than anything else, will determine the damage the report will to do Zuma and the ANC.

For despite the opportunistic and futile calls from opposition parties for presidential impeachment and criminal charges, the report says more about Zuma’s personal failings, about fawning bureaucrats and opportunistic businessmen, than it does about criminal acts.

Criminal prosecutions, should there be any, will have to await the findings of the Special Investigations Unit, which Justice Minister Jeff Radebe says are at an advanced stage. That SIU report will form the basis of disciplinary and criminal actions against those implicated but on the historical evidence of Zuma’s ability to duck and dive, the Teflon president is not likely to see the inside of a court room from the dock.

Zuma – as both the ANC and the nation knew before he was elected president – is somewhat ethically challenged and also struggles to separate his private self from his public position. It is unlikely then that he will discern the sardonic tone behind Madonsela’s observation that the levels of expenditure would have “prompted any reasonable person in the position of the president to seriously question … the expense to the fiscus of funds that could have been used where there are service delivery needs, poverty and unemployment”.

Madonsela has marshalled some startling statistics in support of her argument. The estimated cost of the Nkandla project escalated from R28-million to R224-million in just 18 months to December 2010. The figure of R246-million today is a “conservative” estimate and does not include any provision for maintenance of these facilities after Zuma leaves office.

The imperial nature of Zuma’s presidency is apparent when the report compares security expenditure on the private homes of South Africa’s previous presidents. PW Botha’s, in today’s currency, was a piffling R173 000; FW De Klerk cost all of R236 000; Nelson Mandela, with two private homes, cost R32-million; while Thabo Mbeki cost R8-million. How extraordinary that apartheid’s leaders – widely loathed and undoubtedly assassination targets in the liberation war – clearly didn’t fret much about security, while today’s supposedly beloved man of the masses has to live behind gilded battlements.

The best line in Madonsela’s morality tale goes not to Zuma – who shift-shapes in the background of the narrative, a ghostly presence communicating only through intermediaries – nor to any of the bombastic politicians or unctuous civil servants that she interviewed. It goes to that new epitome of cultural cringe and the post-colonial inferiority complex, Minenhle Makhanya, Zuma’s private architect, who was paid R16.5-million for his efforts.

When asked why a cattle culvert and chicken hok costing millions, he replied: “This is how they do it in England…”.

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    • http://paulwhelanwriting.blogspot.com Paul Whelan

      One can only hope there is a similar reaction of outrage from the public, but at best we must still have to wait and see. The ANC escape route was set up months before the report – there was abuse and corruption. But, of course, only lower down, not at the top. Every supplier must be trembling as the unrighteous arm of the law reaches out for them.

    • bernpm

      Mr Zuma will by now have enough as-creepers lined up to replace the currently noted top civil servants and use those disgraced people with ambassador’s positions on places like “Paas-eiland” in the Hawaiian group of Holiday Islands.

      The real victims in the current civil servants will be the tea girls who smile too much, the secretaries who type too slow and some higher ranking departmental heads who did not stand in attention when speaking out the name “Zuma”.
      In the higher ranks the people who did miss out on hiding vital events or papers from the smelling noses of the hunting team of mrs Madonsela.

    • Bert

      Excellent piece, William! What astonishes me about the ANC’s apparent unwillingness to “do the right thing” by “recalling” Jacob Zuma, is that they seem oblivious of the fact that overseas countries’ opinion of South Africa will bathe it increasingly in the light of the notion of “banana republic”. We are supposed to be a democracy, and even the ANC still pays lip sevice to this epithet, but if we really were, Jacob Zuma would have stepped down from the position of president long before Advocate Madonsela published her report on Nkandla. That’s what presidents and prime ministers routinely have to do in real democracies, as Advocate Madonsela noted in her press conference, where she gave the example of some politician in – if I recall correctly – one of the Scandinavian countries, who had to step down because of having to admit that she bought a negligible article (was it a chocolate?) with taxpayers’ money. The mindset of the ANC is not at all a democratic one, but an oligarchic one where, because it is the “ruling party”, they arrogate to themselves the right to spend any amount of taxpayers’ money on Number One (and heaven knows how many other “numbers” below that). They should not act surprised when signs appear that other countries regard us with the amusement and contempt that a banana republic deserves.

    • Amilcar

      Mr Olivier makes a good point about international opinion. Ultimately it was international opinion together with capital disinvestment that brought about the end of the ugly apartheid regime. However the difference is that regime really cared about international opinion – especially from the West and real democracies. The ANC on the other hand has openly allied itself to the most undemocratic regimes in the world – from Russia and China to rogue states like Syria and North Korea. You are right that only international pressure could have resulted in a different reality in SA, and a true democracy. But this opinion should have been applied during the struggle years, when the uncritical global acceptance of the ANC’s values and methods, when many should have known much better, was the main reason for the ANC’s contempt for real democracy. In a sense the world should have spoken, and acted earlier. The West and Scandinavia bear a large portion of the responsibility for SA’s sham democracy, and their cowardice when they could have influenced history to a more viable real democracy, has left permanent damage on SA.

    • Sarah

      @Bert, surely the opinions of people from this continent and country are of primary concern? Your comment is a tad Eurocentric. No? Otherwise, what informs your final sentence? Quite puzzling

      @William, thanks for another interesting read. You make a valid point about the architect, cultural cringe and internalised oppression – a response straight from Fanon’s ‘Black Face/White mask’. But what do you make of Bert’s reference to ‘overseas countries’ and their opinion of South Africa? What’s the opposite of cultural cringe and internalised oppression in an otherwise very progressive person?

      … just observing the SA psyche from the margins, and marveling at what the written word can reveal. : )

    • Bert

      Not Eurocentric, Sarah – democracy-centred, rather. And I’m not fooled by many of these overseas countries, despite my appeal to their ‘democracy’. You probably know what I think of the US flaunting democracy with their security programmes like PRISM and their terrorizing drone-patrols. But at least, as Thuli Madonsela also observed during her press conference, in most ‘overseas democracies’ politicians are sensitive to their constituencies’ expectations regarding the use of public money and propriety, to the point where they know when to step down, unlike members of the ANC. And regarding this continent, I don’t see that much dedication to democratic principles. Do you? All the more reason why SA should set an impeccable democratic example to other African countries.

    • http://nil Gillian Katz van der Heijden

      Excellent article from William, and I for one, agree with Bert’s reply, but the majority have told the minority and overseas leaders that they don’t care a damn about international opinion. The article is well summed up ‘Why a chicken hok and a cattle culvert costing millions “That is how they do it in England”. After all if you take a ‘man of the people’ who scorns the base degrees by which he did ascend’ and fly him off to Europe he’s bound to covert Buckingham Palace, and as long as his electorate support his únlimited needs he’ll be back for another twenty years, with a leaf from Mugabe’s book. Democracy through centuries simply relies on the vote of the majority who are perfectly happy to watch the flag futter in their colours, and sing Mayibuyi Africa and watch it shovelled out with the coal to China. As long as they have a JOB or the promise of a JOB for the day that’s all that matters! Well done Excellent President. My best friend too!

    • http://roryshort.blogspot.com/ Rory Short

      Behaviour that is driven by resentment is toxic. Paraphrasing Nelson Mandela: Holding resentment toward anything is like drinking poison yourself and hoping that the thing resented will die. Many people in SA are locked into resentments. Cocking a snook at valid overseas opinions about happenings in SA, such as the Nkandla mis-use of public money, is resentful behaviour. However just condemning resentments is pointless. For true healing to happen the source of the resentments needs to be addressed. There is much in the West’s historical and current attitudes towards Africa that has occasioned African resentments toward the West.

    • http://nil Gillian Katz van der Heijden

      Rory Short ‘ There is much in the West’s historical attitude…’ misses the point of traditional ethnic cultural history. The great Zulu chief’s Nkandlas embraced thousands of families, warriors and livestock. Stanger also had a great Nkandla and was the burial place of Ceteshwayo, who met his sudden and mysterious death not at the hands of the British in London, who were impressed with his noble dignity, but back home in Zululand where the grab for power and riches beckoned in the dawn of a new age of ships and shipping. Traditionally the power rests with the strongest leader and if to some, he doesn’t meet Western standards of democracy, we know Zumu has declared that he follows Zulu culture. That allows him an enormous Nkandla, the current example is very small compared to his ultimate vision. Zuma’s loyal followers will establish his rights. Of the English in Natal I quote: ‘There used to be an island there once’- Kendrew Lascelles from his play “Exclusive Circles”

      I can’t see Western democracy riding in to save Souh Africa, not unless we strike a mighty oil gush!

    • Sarah

      Thanks for clarifying what you intended Bert. Now it would be interesting if Mr Makhanya could clarify why he followed the example of that ‘democracy’ that colonised us, and much of the ‘undemocratic’ world, we will get a clearer view of those democracies and why they have the right to laugh at South Africa.

      I am not as enchanted with (market) democracies as you appear to be Bert. My question had more to do with African values and how it has been distorted to the extent that we uncritically want to emulate everything that comes from the West. We should take note of their derision, but we should also note that we need to clean up our own house and live according to our own positive values – an example that Ms Madonsela sets for us as humans. She is a woman who feared for her life, and yet she upheld the values we all consented to via our constitution (imperfect as it is wrt property rights).