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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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