South Africa

Nkandla: Uncontrolled Creep, and other words to live by

By Richard Poplak 30 November 2013

Whatever the leaked Nkandla report proves about South Africa’s own Versailles, it is primarily useful because it introduces a new term into the South African lexicon. “Uncontrolled Creep.” Hash tag it, folks—it’s the malaise of our era. By RICHARD POPLAK


An adverb plus a verb? An adjective plus a noun? Both? Neither? Before we wrestle with the grammatical intricacies, we should spend a moment considering just how South Africa arrived at the new coinage that has, over the course of the last few days, come to define our abject present tense.

The term comes from the lips of a newly famous star-chitect named Minenhle Makhanya, who I like to think of as the Daniel Liebeskind of the bottom of Africa, and is the individual primarily responsible for turning an already considerable homestead into a mega-secure 21st century version of the Playboy Mansion. Makhanya, by way of describing the steady evolution of Nkandla’s security upgrade, intimated that the “tail had begun to wag the dog”, which means that process took on a life of its own. When speaking to the compilers of Thuli Madonsela’s colourful report, he elaborated by describing the Nkandla process as a sort of institutional madness that can very easily set in when working on a project of significant scope, for no lesser a personage than the leader of the most powerful country in Africa.

Some of you may have experienced much the same thing when renovating your own homes. You jet off to the Hypermarket to purchase paint and some barbed wire with the intention of freshening the joint up and discouraging interlopers, and return with a carport, a sauna, a flatscreen television, a rumpus room, a tennis court and a helipad. Before you know it, you’re ever so slightly over budget and forced to call in a host of new specialists, who in turn drive the budget up even further, and need more stuff, which requires more specialists—you know, the tail wagging the dog. Happens all the time: if Makhanya were hired to build a three story KFC with parking for 12, the end result would resemble the Burj Dubai.

In a country of rampantly ambitious strivers, this sort of thing is not only to be expected, but applauded.

Don’t call it a screw up. Call it “uncontrolled creep”. What an excessively beautiful term! Uncontrolled creep absolves the architect of responsibility because, like some dread Ebola strain that eats through even the healthiest of flesh, it is a phenomenon that just happens, that can’t be avoided once it begins. Like the Frank Gehry acolyte he clearly is, Makhanya was not only the architect, but was also appointed the overseer of the architect. So if we are to employ his own logic, he must be doubly absolved of any responsibility, because he was doubly stricken by uncontrolled creep—first as his own employee, and then as his own employer. And Jacob Zuma is certainly faultless: how could the president, buried under the weight of his official duties, be expected to stem this unstoppable infection, which ravaged Nkandla affecting even the modest chambers built for “relocated relatives”? Call it what you will: architectural gangrene, builder’s bone cancer, upgrader’s myocardial infarction.

Rather, call it uncontrolled creep.

In the case of Nkandla, we have learned over the past few days that uncontrolled creep was the cause of several upgrades that (were we talking the international space station) should properly be considered nominal. Let’s leave aside for the moment the underground bunker, capable of withstanding a gas attack, that came with a R19.6 million price tag. (Those costs admittedly including covered walkways). I’m thinking of the “fire pool”—another splendid term newly inaugurated into the South African discourse—that is both oblong luxury water feature and a handy reservoir for beleaguered firefighters saving the president and his court from the Molotov cocktails flung by marauding enemies. The fire pool, a signature collaboration between Makhanya and Zuma, comes with essential underground parking for a safe getaway should one experience a swimsuit malfunction, and cost only R2.8 million. I’ll bet there must be a Russian oiligarch or two who would raise an icy Belvedere and say “provst” to Makhanya’s ingenuity, and have him whisked off to Krasnoyarsk to help pimp their own cribs—no one does security upgrades better than South Africans.

I should probably mention the revamped kraal, replete with chicken coop, reinforced culvert and perimeter fence that cost around R2 million. My limited knowledge of animal husbandry allows that spending US$200,000 on a cattle pen is a small price to pay for the safety of Zuma’s bovine charges (to say nothing of the poultry) that certainly don’t deserve the sort of violence that Nkandla’s retrofitting is designed to forestall.

There is now a visitor’s centre, a clinic, two helipads, an amphitheatre (will King Lear be performed on endless loop? One hopes.), cozy quarters for security personnel, and other features that, should they have been installed outside the walls of the palace, might have accidentally benefitted the very masses this upgrade was meant to protect our president from. Yes, things got a little out of hand. Yes, Zuma appointees billed the state around R90 million. Yes, it cost R183 million more than Nelson Mandela’s own security upgrade, which was quaintly considered excessive at the time. And yes, since Hendrik Verwoerd was knifed by the only person in the country more insane than he was, the presidents of this country have enjoyed an untarnished run of surviving the position, and thus don’t properly need covered walkways for their bunkers.

Just don’t refer to Nkandla as a symbol of corruption and sleaze so grand that it makes the royalty of pre-Enlightenment Europe look like broke ass street people by comparison.

It is merely a case of uncontrolled creep. Adverb and verb, adjective and noun, the malaise sweeps through the country infecting every institution, every politician, every bureaucrat, every home, every consciousness. It twists our legs like polio, bloats our stomachs like kwashiorkor, shuts us brains down like a catastrophic hemorrhage, until we’re on terminal life support, drooling into our sippy cups and mumbling sweet nothings to the matrons.

Nothing to be done about it. No one’s fault. Uncontrolled creep. Just slap a hash tag on it, and go about what remains of your business. DM

Photo: Nkandla compound. (Reuters)


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