The renovations at President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla estate have gone from a minor irritation to a gigantic monster on the ANC’s back. The continuous exposure of the exorbitant and over-the-top 'security upgrades' has caused embarrassment for the ruling party. Now, perceptions that government is bullying Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and trying to excise parts of her report are causing further discomfort in the ANC. Although there is concern about Nkandla becoming an election hot potato, there is no communication outside the security cluster ministers on how to navigate past the issue. Meanwhile, the Nkandla home-owner and face of ANC campaign has on his desk a draft proclamation authorising the Special Investigating Unit to probe the upgrades. Six months later, proclamation remains unsigned. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
The mother of the nation, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, took it there – where everybody else in the ANC fears to tread. “I have great admiration for Thuli (Madonsela). She has been so brave, which is what it should be like. But I am extremely concerned about what is happening to her and the tendency of destroying strong black women in our society.
“Why? All because of Nkandla. That is what the people of Bekkersdal were telling me,” Winnie, a member of the ANC’s national executive committee, told The Sunday Independent. The link she drew between Nkandla and the upheaval in Bekkersdal, caused by a collapse of service delivery, should add an extra dose of insult to the throbbing injury that President Jacob Zuma’s rural residence has become for the ANC.
Winnie can afford to kick dust in Number One’s eye because she knows that nobody in the ANC, not even The Don of Luthuli House, secretary general Gwede Mantashe, has the nerve to take her on. But the other reason there is unlikely to be any comeback from the ANC is because there is a genuine discomfort from the party too about government’s handling of the Nkandla affair.
The approach to Nkandla is vastly different to how the ANC and government dealt with the landing of the Gupta jet at Waterkloof Air Force Base. Although there was uncertainty there too about the extent of Zuma’s involvement, the statement by Mantashe condemning the abuse of the state facility by the president’s friends prompted a speedy response from government to investigate the issue. The final outcome was, of course, a whitewash, with a slap on the wrist for one official in the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, but the boil was lanced quickly without too much pain for the ANC and government.
With the Nkandla upgrades, however, from the time it was exposed in the media, the response from the state was to duck and obfuscate. The ANC has also stayed away from the issue, mostly because the leadership was scared to scratch the surface, not knowing what would be revealed underneath. Zuma’s response to the party has been very much what he has said in Parliament – he and his family paid for the renovations to his home and he had no knowledge of what the state was doing and how much it cost.
But even if that were true, it does not excuse the spending of R206 million of state money on a private home in a deep rural area burdened by extreme poverty. The ANC leadership knows that under any circumstances, this spending is impossible to justify. In the context of the desperate poverty around it, the presidential estate is like a monument to opulence and political excess.
The cover-up of the government task team report, declared “top secret” by Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, has fuelled perceptions of a desperate attempt to conceal the truth. Last week, Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) released their report on the upgrades, which justified the excessive spending by citing the possibility of catastrophes of biblical proportions striking Nkandla. This included earthquakes, firestorms, floods, the outbreak of political violence, disease and the assassination of the president. The report listed among the security upgrades at the homestead chicken roosting areas, a cattle culvert, an amphitheatre and high-security fences with detection systems and cameras.
The JSCI report also revealed that supply chain management procedures were contravened and that contractors were allowed to work at the presidential estate without the necessary security clearance. The report also disclosed that the Department of Public Works was leasing 6.6 hectares of land adjacent to Zuma’s homestead at a cost of R12,850 a year for a security compound to house and entertain defence and police personnel. Instead of the JSCI report clarifying the expenditure and pacifying public anger, it has caused more eye rolling and exasperation.
The investigation by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela was always going to draw the most interest because of her thoroughness and disregard for holy cows. And there has been apprehension in the ANC and the state about what her report would reveal. Madonsela’s investigation dragged on for over a year as she struggled to source the documentation and co-operation she needed from government. As it turns out, and no thanks to cadres in government who tried to frustrate Madonsela’s investigation, the release of the report is imminent, six months prior to a national election.
The gamble by the security cluster of ministers to interdict Madonsela from releasing her provisional report to the interested parties has led to a wave of negative publicity for the government. While Madonsela digging in her heels over the time she gave the ministers to study the report did her cause (to get the report out) no favours either, she has sustained public support because of her track record as a fearless corruption buster.
Interestingly, Madonsela admitted in the Sunday Times what we stated here last week, that it was a “mistake” to hand over the report to the security cluster ministers when she was under no legal obligation to do so. Now that the ministers have the document, they will use every possible tactic to expunge from the report anything possibly compromising to Zuma and government under the guise of national security and the safety of the president.
The ministers submitted their concerns about “a plethora of breaches of state security” in the report to Madonsela last Friday. A new confrontation between Madonsela and the security cluster is looming over the ministers’ demand that the Public protector give them back the report for approval after taking into consideration their concerns – assuming that she agrees to amend her report at all, based on their submission. They have suggested in their court papers that Madonsela will be breaking the law if she distributes the report before they approve it. Indications from the Public Protector’s office are that Madonsela has no intention to give in to the ministers’ demands.
But the longer this matter drags on, the bigger the nightmare for the ANC and its election campaign. The ANC apparently had concerns about four issues that could be turned into election hot potatoes by the opposition: the Marikana massacre, e-tolling, the Protection of State Information Bill and Nkandla. Of these, Nkandla is the most difficult to navigate because the worst might still come in Madonsela’s report and because a small group of people in the state have been dealing with the issue on their own without consultation with the ANC.
Daily Maverick understands that the security cluster ministers have also not taken senior officials in government or the colleagues in Cabinet into confidence or strategised with them about how to manage the Nkandla issue. As a result government communicators have not been able to prepare to manage the issue in public. The ANC is also left flat-footed, not able to respond to the upsurge of negative publicity or counter the impact on its election campaign.
For the ANC, the best option would have been to have Madonsela release the report as soon as possible – and take cover, hoping the storm would pass quickly – and have the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) examine any criminality that might have occurred. This will show a willingness to prosecute any corruption associated with the product and give the ANC a desperately needed crutch to lean on if they get ambushed on the election trail.
However, a draft proclamation authorising the SIU to investigate the matter was sent to the president by the security ministers over six months ago. It is not known why he has not yet signed it. The SIU cannot act without his authorisation.
So the Nkandla debacle continues to drag on, with no urgency from the state to act accountable and give taxpayers the answers they require. But it is not only taxpayers who are frustrated. The ANC’s election strategists know that more damaging revelations on Nkandla will hurt in the long run.
The only bone they have been thrown is that “the face” of the ANC’s election campaign, the same face that will appear on billboards, posters and the ballot paper, is not implicated in any corruption on the Nkandla upgrade. The problem is that that face will someday retire to the palace on the hillside and enjoy the benefits of the upgrade. And even then, the continued splurging will be as difficult for the ANC to explain as it is now. DM
Photo: Nkandla compound (Sapa)
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