South Africa

Nkandla leak: one step closer to the truth

By Alex Eliseev 30 November 2013

The leaking of the draft Nkandla report played out like a well-rehearsed drama: the crusading investigative reporters, the outraged nation, the unflappable government and the defensive ANC. But the details are out there now. And they are explosive. Whatever happens from here, ALEX ELISEEV argues, we are a more empowered citizenry.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and the Security Cluster Ministers argued about it in court papers, each accusing the other of something that hadn’t happened yet. Sure Madonsela’s investigation had sprung a few leaks, but the dam wall only broke on Friday morning, as the Mail & Guardian newspaper hit the streets.

The government wants us to believe that the flood of information is a bad thing, that it somehow compromises the integrity of the investigation. But what it really does is enlighten us as a nation preparing to vote in a new set of leaders next year.

The provisional findings against President Jacob Zuma are earth-shaking. Okay, maybe we’re getting a little carried away with all the earthquake warnings in Nkandla, but they are certainly damning.

Madonsela has found that Zuma derived “substantial personal benefit” from the upgrades at his homestead and that those upgrades exceeded any security needs he may have. It pins the spending at R215 million, although the Department of Public Works is on record saying only R208 million of taxpayer’s money was spent.

Speaking of being on the record… Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi is on the record saying “All we paid for was the security upgrades”.

Madonsela’s report suggests that’s a blatant lie.

Her report identifies various features that were built not for security purposes but for Zuma’s comfort. These include a luxurious swimming pool, visitor’s centre, amphitheatre (yes, an amphitheatre), cattle kraal, marquee area, extensive paving and homes for relatives.

The working title of the report is “Opulence on a Grand Scale”. You do the maths. And that’s excluding the so-called security upgrades, like bunkers that can detect deadly gas attacks and underground escape tunnels.

The report finds that Zuma violated the Executive Ethics Code in two ways: by misleading parliament (a nice way of saying he lied) and by failing to protect state resources (a nice way of saying he stole, abused or was reckless with our money). Madonsela wants Zuma to pay back some of the money spent on Nkandla and to account to parliament, Dina Pule style. Both of these actions would be deeply embarrassing for a president.

But Zuma’s headache doesn’t stop there. The report also nails the President’s architect, Minenhle Makhanya, saying he and other contractors were not subjected to proper tender processes. Makhanya has no security experience nor a security clearance, but became the “tail that wagged the state dog” due to “political interference”. As lead agent, he contributed to the “uncontrolled creep” of the project’s scope, laughing all the way to the bank.

Madonsela’s findings include that even South African icon Nelson Mandela had to make do with a clinic at a nearby town and didn’t have his own. The helipads and handouts for police VIP guards (those guys that ride you off the road and beat up journalists) could also have been moved to a communal space, the Public Protector suggests.

The Mail & Guardian team fought through the courts to secure access to 12 000 pages of evidence in the Nkandla upgrades and write on it with authority. You can read the article here.

The findings, even provisional ones, paint a frightening picture of a monarch being showered with opulence. It’s easy to see what inspired the report’s title. To add some punch, we are shown a comparison of how much was spent on security upgrades at the homes of former presidents (R32 million went to Mandela, R12 million to Thabo Mbeki) and are treated to a Zapiro cartoon of Zuma floating in a swimming pool filled with money. Anyone who has so much as driven through Diepsloot or Alexandra – never mind anyone who lives there – would have punched the walls upon reading the contents of Madonsela’s report.

The reaction was swift and predictable. Calls for investigations, petitions for impeachment and all round outrage. It took government and the ANC a bit longer to respond because the Security Cluster ministers were meeting with Madonsela, accusing her of the leak.

The ANC (which has the power to take action against a president who is clearly allergic to good governance and breaks out in scandal every few weeks) says it’s waiting for the final report and support Zuma until then. It’s a safe move because the report is in draft stage and history has shown us that reports can and do change.

The Ministers (who tried to stop detailed photographs of Nkandla being published) painted Madonsela as the culprit by saying she has agreed, after meeting them, to “follow the proper process of handling such reports”. Suggesting, of course, that she has not done so until now.

But ask yourself, who has more to gain from the report being leaked? It’s a difficult question because it swings both ways. Madonsela may have been scared that her report will get shut down and not see the light of day, so the information had to get out somehow. On the other hand, government knows the report is coming, it knows what it contains, and casting doubt on it and kicking up dust about the media leak could have been a strategic move. Already, government defenders are calling in to radio shows, speaking about how frequently Madonsela’s reports leak, shoveling doubt on whether the investigations are objective and fair. Great ammo for a potential legal battle later.

We don’t know who leaked the report. But what’s important is to stay focused on the contents and not get drawn into the sideshows. We now have the details of Madonsela’s findings while government is using its own internal investigation to clear Zuma of any wrongdoing.

We decide what we believe.

Also, we must accept that this is a preliminary report and the final one may be different. If this happens, we will be called on to formulate our beliefs about why it happened? Was it because government offered a solid explanation which changed Madonsela’s mind or was it something more sinister.

Point is: Now South Africa is part of the process. There is transparency. There is information. There is power flowing to the voters.

A wise editor always used to tell me: Once the sh*t is out of the donkey, you can’t shove it back in. The same is true for the Nkandla scandal. The information is out there.

Don’t expect Zuma to resign next week or to be recalled. As political analyst Prince Mashele said, he’s probably “floating in his swimming in Nkandla as we speak”. Mashele said the ANC will protect Zuma, regardless of the magnitude of the scandal. But we may be closer now to some kind of a tipping point.

How public money is spent on a presidential palace is of overwhelming public interest. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We’ve been lied to before and we will hear more lies in the future. But we are now a step (maybe even a few steps) closer to the truth. DM

Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev

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