Mandy Rossouw did not go to Nkandla looking for scandal. She travelled there, on a road cratered with potholes, in search of insight.
In November 2009, Jacob Zuma had been president for just six months and the investigative team at the Mail & Guardian – where I was editor-in-chief – was quietly building a picture of the sprawling business empire that was springing up around him and his family. That work would begin to emerge piecemeal in 2010 and would culminate seven years later in the multi-billion rand state-capture scandal that led to his ejection from the Presidency.
But Rossouw’s story was, in its way, as consequential. The insight she found among the hills of northern KwaZulu-Natal was that Zuma’s character is scandal: venal, self-seeking and reckless, secure in the comfort of his absolute entitlement.
‘President Jacob Zuma is expanding his remote family homestead at Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal for a whopping price of R65 million – and the taxpayer is footing the largest chunk of the bill,’ she wrote.
‘The expansion will turn the presidential homestead into a sprawling precinct that will include a police station, helicopter pad, military clinic, visitors’ centre, parking lot with parking for at least 40 vehicles and at least three smaller houses that will serve as staff quarters.’
She had established the price tag by assiduously working sources connected with the project, even as official spokespeople denied any work was being done at all.
‘It is R65 million, but it will probably be more in the end. You know how it goes with building, the prices always go up and up,’ one said. By the time the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, completed her report on the project three-and-a-half years later, the figure was ‘conservatively’ R246 million. A staggering amount in South Africa. Eight times what had been spent around Nelson Mandela’s rural homestead, 30 times the cost of security arrangements at Mbeki’s post-retirement home. Worse, it was clear that every rule of government procurement had been broken to deliver to the President the home of his dreams, with a cattle kraal, an amphitheatre, a deluxe chicken run and a swimming pool styled as a ‘fire pool’, paid for from the budget for safety measures.
Like many of the best stories, this one began, not with a tip-off, a dossier under the door or a hint from a disgruntled civil servant, but with a hunch that there was something to be found in those hills.
The newspaper’s year-end edition is a blockbuster. It is an annual ritual for loyal readers, with longform stories, trend pieces and an uncharacteristic amount of humour, designed to be read over South Africa’s lazy year-end vacation. So when we sat around a table in our Rosebank office to plan the 2009 edition, we not only weren’t looking for scandal, we were actively uninterested in it. Mandy wanted to go to the President’s hometown, as neglected by the national press as it was by the roads department, to have a look, and to better understand someone who clearly set great store by his rural background.
Mandy was not above a bit of breathless enthusiasm when in possession of a new piece of political gossip, but she liked to deliver a real scoop with an air of great calm. And that is what she did when she returned. She had found an earthmover, she explained, and the beginnings of building work. She had talked her way into the construction office, where she saw plans, and got a sense of the scale of the project and, working the phone, she had established what was really going on.
The story of a lavish new home for the President, hitherto kept completely secret, was, of course, a much better return on the trip than an insight piece for year-end. I was probably less good at concealing my enthusiasm than Mandy was. This would not wait for Christmas.
We spent much of the following week in an attempt to elicit comment from the Presidency and the department of public works. They stonewalled us, flatly denying that any work was under way and then, late on Thursday, as the M&G was going to press, released a statement to all media, broadly confirming the outlines of Mandy’s reporting and insisting there was no impropriety of any kind
The story caused a minor flurry when it came out, but in the months that followed, as costs escalated, and more details of Zuma’s personal role in the project began to emerge in the M&G, City Press and other papers, it built to become the defining scandal of his first term. Madonsela’s 2014 report ‘Secure in comfort’, calmly outlined the sheer scale of the boondoggle. Zuma, and his administration, she said, should have reacted when the M&G first published, to comply with the Executive Code of Ethics and contract regulations. Instead, a builder working for both Zuma and the state had allowed costs to balloon and luxury features to be conflated with security measures. Madonsela insisted on remedial action, including that Zuma pay back a portion of the costs, and that he reprimand the ministers involved in sanctioning and overseeing the work. The report, prompted by opposition complaints, was a remarkably brave piece of work, carried out in the face of intense pressure and intimidation and it landed in a climate of economic malaise and escalating concern over corruption at the apex of the government and ANC. ‘Pay back the money’ quickly became a rallying cry for an invigorated opposition.
Mandy, who would have revelled in reporting these developments, did not live to see them. She had died suddenly at just 33 in March 2013. But what happened next would, I am quite sure, have elicited one of her warm, broad grins. The parliamentary ANC, in thrall to its whippery and heedless of the consequences, voted to exonerate Zuma, treating Madonsela’s orders as mere recommendations. That, in turn, drew a court challenge from the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters. Where one key institution had shirked its duty, the courts, at the last, would not. In March 2016, Chief Justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, appointed by Zuma himself, read out the full judgment of the court. It was a primer in the structure of constitutional state, the responsibilities of the legislature and the duties of the President. Both the presidency and parliament had failed in their duties and were to comply with the Public Protector’s orders. It was a stunning rebuke and it ought to have led to Zuma’s immediate resignation, or a vote of no-confidence. That it did not was a sign of how deeply the ruling party, ANC, had been captured by the apparatus of corruption he had built.
Zuma’s R65m Nkandla splurge Mandy Roussow, Mail & Guardian, 4 December 2009
Additional reporting by Niren Tolsi
President Jacob Zuma is expanding his remote family homestead at Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal for a whopping price of R65 million – and the taxpayer is footing the largest chunk of the bill. The expansion will turn the presidential homestead into a sprawling precinct that will include a police station, helicopter pad, military clinic, visitors’ centre, parking lot with parking for at least 40 vehicles and at least three smaller houses that will serve as staff quarters. Phase one of the project, comprising two houses, one of them a double-storey structure, and a guesthouse, is already under way. Given that state money is involved, how future presidents will benefit from the development remains unclear. Government insisted this week that it has no record of such a development and no hand in any of Zuma’s personal property endeavours. Shortly before the Mail & Guardian’s deadline the presidency released a statement changing its tune. The statement reads: The Zuma family planned before the elections to extend the Nkandla residence, and this is being done at own cost. No government funding will be utilised for the construction work.
Public works spokesperson Koketso Sachane said on Wednesday: ‘Please note that there is no work or extension project taking place at President Jacob Zuma’s homestead at Nkandla.’ The presidency also claimed no knowledge of such a project, saying that Nkandla is Zuma’s private home and therefore no business of the state. It accused the M&G of ‘setting out to embarrass the president’ by publishing a story. Further attempts to obtain comment from communications head Vusi Mona were futile. On Thursday December 3 Mona promised to consult Zuma and get back to the M&G, but he did not respond to calls later in the day. However, the M&G understands that a meeting to discuss the project was held at Nkandla on August 2, attended by the surgeon general, Vejay Ramlakan, and a representative of the department of public works. Ramlakan, through his spokesperson, referred all queries to the presidency ‘because it is happening at the president’s homestead, so it is his matter to comment on’.
When the M&G visited Nkandla last weekend, an earth-mover was excavating the ground next to the existing homestead to prepare for the construction of the initial phase of the project. Two cement mixers and two water tanks were on site as well as construction offices where the architectural plans for the construction are kept. About 12 construction workers were working overtime to ensure the project gets off the ground. The site was devoid of company signage. The contractor told the M&G the three new houses would cost R4.1 million and would be funded by Zuma in his personal capacity. However, this was only phase one of the project. The total cost of the development will run to R65 million, according to sources closely involved with it. ‘It is R65 million, but it will probably be more in the end. You know how it goes with building, the prices always go up and up,’ one said. There is no time frame for the completion of the development. The M&G understands part of the reasoning behind the mammoth extension is to enhance the homestead’s capacity to host VIP guests and their retinues. On election day this year, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo – in the country as an election monitor – popped into Zuma’s home after a helicopter flight. More of such visits are expected in the future. A military source said there was also a need to extend the homestead’s capacity to house Zuma’s health and security staff, most of whom stay in Eshowe when Zuma is at Nkandla. A source said: ‘This is cumbersome in terms of response time, so the idea was to build a bigger facility to house all the support staff in Nkandla when the president is there.
The houses are apparently being built to accommodate two wives currently living at Nxamalala, MaNtuli Zuma and MaMbhija Zuma. The complex already includes a house for his first wife, Sizakhele, built in 2000 shortly after he became deputy president. Sizakhele uses the main house with various relatives, mostly women and children, who live in rondavel-type structures around her. A silver E-class Mercedes and a white Toyota Prado 4×4 are parked outside and serve as the first lady’s transport. During the corruption trial of Zuma’s former financial adviser Schabir Shaik in 2004, the state produced evidence that alleged bribes flowing from French arms firm Thales helped finance the building of the homestead. Zuma’s last visit to Nkandla was in September according to a security guard, but he is expected to spend time there over the Christmas period. He will then host the annual Christmas party for children and attend to the long queues of local people who line up outside to visit him and discuss issues pertaining to the village.
The area is due to be cordoned off by a brick wall which will make provision for only one entrance. The two new main houses are kidney-shaped and contain hisand- hers bathrooms, formal living rooms, walk-in closets and a study. One house contains four bedrooms, while the smaller has three. Double-volume ceilings will be fitted to the homes, which will sport thatched roofs, in the same style as the current homestead, which is cordoned off by green palisade fencing. The plans were drawn up in August by Durban architects, the names of whom the M&G was unable to establish. However, no record of the plans could be found at the local deeds office in uThungulu municipality in Richards Bay. Nkandla houses 13,000 people, many of whom have no access to electricity, and in-house water is a rarity. Work is taking place on the road leading to the presidential homestead to make it more accessible.
Featured Image: Nkandla. Image: Dispatch LIVE