Independence you can trust
25 March 2018 07:19 (South Africa)
South Africa

Nkandla government report: Controlling the (scandal) creep

  • Alex Eliseev
    Alex Eliseev

    Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them. 

  • South Africa

It’s taken just four days for South Africans to be shaken out of the daydream that was a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy and be flung back into the ugly reality of Nkandla, and the massive political cover-up around it. The release of government’s own report into the upgrades at President Jacob Zuma’s home have set on fire a week which was supposed to offer little more than traffic updates and DA statements. By ALEX ELISEEV.

It was no secret that the ministerial task team report commissioned by Public Works minister Thulas Nxesi would exonerate Jacob Zuma of any wrongdoing, but the release of the previously classified “top secret” document has revealed an all new picture of how the project was handled and has led to some fascinating political developments.

The key message from the security cluster upon releasing the report was this: “President Jacob Zuma did not ask for security installations… no state funds were used to build the President’s private residence… attempts to lay the responsibility for the upgrade at the door of the President are misdirected”.

To deliver this message, a mighty team of ministers, Directors General, army generals and police officers (including police chief Riah Phiyega) was assembled to face journalists in Pretoria.

It was a bizarre example of a state machine trying to alter the direction of a scandal which has become a messy snowball bouncing down a steep mountain, growing ever more rapidly, hurting the government and the ruling party more and more.

Firstly, a new figure of R71-million was introduced. Until now, the cost of the upgrades at Nkandla was always referred to as “more than R200-million”, with figures ranging between R206-million and R215-million.

The R71-million, we are now told, is the actual “security installation cost” at Nkandla, while the remainder – R135-million odd – was spent on “operational needs and basic facilities and services” (water, power, accommodation for police officers and soldiers, etc). But government has been at pains to assure us that public money was only spent on security upgrades so whatever the R135-million was spent on was done to support the R71-million security installations. Breaking a big figure into smaller ones is a neat trick, but anyone who reads the actual report will see that ultimately – regardless of what column the figures land up in – the total still adds up to R206-million. That’s R206-million spent on the private home of a single individual albeit a State President.

At a media briefing called by the ANC two hours after the report was released, the figure of R71-million – not the larger one, the one that puts everything into a proper context – was repeated by secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.

The creative accounting was only the beginning. Government produced a sensational list of explanations for some of the other “security” upgrades at Zuma’s homestead.

The amphitheater is apparently not an amphitheater at all but is actually a retainer wall “curved to give it more structural support”. The chicken run was built to eliminate hiding places for criminals. The cattle kraal was relocated to make sure pesky cows don’t zap themselves on the security fence, setting off false alarms and damaging “sensitive electronic equipment”. The “fire pool” really is a fire pool and not a swimming pool, even though it sure looks like one. It was, allegedly, the best option given the number of thatch roofs in close proximity. To put out any possible fires, Riah Phiyega explained, buckets can be dipped into the water and then used to douse the flames. (Why a few extra bucks could not have been spent on a pump and hose pipes remains an unsolved mystery, for now.)

The government report also found that the tuck shop had to be moved due to security concerns. This also applied to the families which lived too close to the “high security zone” and were suddenly classified as a “security risk”.

“The rondavels could not remain where they were as they were going to be an obstruction to the fence and furthermore posed a challenge for the positioning of the surveillance cameras”. You’ve read right: the people got in the way of Zuma’s R10-million fence.

The police did try to justify how dangerous the area was both historically and in modern times: there have been three attacks at the residence, two cases of arson and one of burglary which saw one of the first ladies assaulted.

Furthermore, the “waiting rooms” were built to “control” all the visitors; the paving was laid because, well, “anyone who’s been to Nkandla knows you should not wear high heels there”; and the AstroTurf field was not build by the state but by an NGO as a legacy project of the 2010 World Cup. Allegedly.

The government’s briefing ended with assurances that both the Auditor General and the Special Investigating Unit have been called in to carry out their own investigations while the police have also been asked to investigate any possible criminal acts.

The public reaction was swift and it wasn’t kind. The vast majority of those who listened to the announcement instantly wrote it off as whitewash.

“#Nkandla not spinable – sorry,” Tweeted Cosatu’s suspended general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

“Watching the Nkandla report by Ministers and DG’s is sad and painful,” wrote Vusi Pikoli.

“The only way the #Nkandla press briefing would make any sense would be if sign language guy Thamsanqa interpreted it,” quipped veteran journalist and writer Max du Preez.

“Out of the fire pool and into the fire”, tweeted EWN's Camilla Bath.

The jokes about swimming pools, Malawi and “uncontrolled creep” came thick and fast. But while Twitter burned up, the full government report was uploaded to the GCIS website. If you haven’t read it, may we suggest you do by clicking here. If you want to have meaningful discussions about Nkandla, you need to chew through the details.

The report paints a terrifying picture of wasted millions, inflated prices, collusion and complete and utter disregard for any tender processes. It’s almost like a few guys got together and split up R200-million worth of contracts, some of which had to be cancelled due to poor performance. No tenders. No second or third quotes. No security clearances.

The companies involved are named and shamed. The amounts spent on everything from bullet proof windows (R3-million) to an elevator (R2-million) are neatly broken down into graphs. One such graph shows a list of seven service providers, all of which had no security clearances. One of these was a security consultancy, hired to secure the home of a country’s president.

The major difference between this report and the one which will be presented by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela next month is the degree of Zuma’s involvement and his personal benefit. But even the government’s own report holds back no punches and delivers a powerful set of recommendations. These include: the report should be referred to the police, the SIU and the AG; parliament should review the National Key Point Act; new policies be developed to handle “prestige projects”; costs of the project be reviewed; action be taken against any government officials found to have acted illegally; the State Security Agency should assess the entire project; roles of former ministers and deputy ministers be investigated; and that the Ministerial Handbook be reviewed.

Skeptics will argue that this is an attempt to divert attention away from Zuma’s role and to find the fall guys, much like in the controversial Guptagate landing. But whatever the case, the report sets a strong precedent and is uncharacteristically critical of the mess inside the Public Works department.

The ANC was quick to welcome the report and the “transparency” it illustrates but declined to debate the discrepancy in the money spent on Zuma’s home versus how much was spent on the homes of former presidents, including Mandela. The ruling party raised general concerns about the “R71-million” spent and said it’s now waiting for the outcome of the Public Protector’s report.

The preliminary findings of that report have already leaked and stand in sharp contrast to the ones released by government. It’s been reported that Madonsela calls for Zuma to pay back some of the money spent and to account to parliament. It says he received “substantial personal benefit” from upgrades which exceeded his security requirements and was in constant contact with his architect. The working title of that report is “Opulence on a grand scale”.

South Africa will shut down for the holidays now, but when the news clouds gather again next year, we may be in for some exciting times. The Nkandla scandal is widening and there seems to be some shifts in the political plates. It’s too early to tell but the booing of Zuma at Madiba’s memorial service and the cracks in the country’s biggest trade union federation are important events. The release of Madonsela’s Nkandla report could well be a landmark moment. And, of course, all of these roads lead to the 2014 elections. It’s too early to make predictions, but rest up and recharge your emotional batteries… sometimes a snowball triggers an avalanche. DM

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

Photo: Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi briefs reporters in Pretoria, Thursday, 19 December 2013 on the inter-ministerial task team report on President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla homestead. Nxesi said allegations that Zuma used state resources to build and upgrade his personal Nkandla residence were unfounded. Picture: GCIS/SAPA.

  • Alex Eliseev
    Alex Eliseev

    Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them. 

  • South Africa

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles

Reader notice: Our comments service provider, Civil Comments, has stopped operating and will terminate services on 20th Dec 2017. As a result, we will be searching for another platform for our readers. We aim to have this done with the launch of our new site in early 2018 and apologise for the inconvenience.