South Africa

Close encounters of the Nkandla kind: A journey to the president’s heartland

By Marianne Thamm 12 February 2014

On an as-yet-unnamed road, heading westwards about 36km after the former colonial village of Eshowe in KwaZulu-Natal, you may or may not pass a sign on the left (these periodically disappear due to accidents and other unforeseen circumstances) that indicates the burial place of Zulu King Cetshwayo. If you carried on for another 40km you would arrive at the small town of Nkandla. If you were hoping to see President Jacob Zuma’s controversial maximum-security private estate somewhere along the route, you’d be disappointed. He doesn’t live there. By MARIANNE THAMM.

So, let’s begin by orientating ourselves. Home to President Jacob Zuma and his extended family is at Nxamalala in the magnificent Thukela valley on the eastern border of the Nkandla municipality (a municipal ward won by the IPF in a 2013 by-election); population 114,416 with 22,000 households, 65% of them headed by women (according to Census 2011), if you really want to know.

Why almost everyone now refers to the president’s home as being located at Nkandla might have more to do with the difficulty some in the media have pronouncing Nxamalala, or perhaps the incorrect reporting of the location is simply due to geographic expediency.

Personally encountering the president’s private home(s) is a mildly disorientating experience for those like myself (who have only seen press photographs). It is a bit like an episode from an old Star Trek series. Suddenly, after a sweeping bend in the road, there is it, perched on a slope, its specially treated thatched roofs and domes tinged with a golden, otherworldly hue and literally shimmering in the scorching sunlight.

It is as if the entire compound/estate/structure had been neatly deposited from outer space, completely incongruous in the surrounding dusty, thorny scrubland – a region located in a geographical “rain shadow” (read dry land) – where apparently unattended languid donkeys, goats and magnificent Nguni cows saunter across the national road.

Photo: Uncontrolled creep.

Neat, verdant, freshly-mown lawns and an extensively landscaped vegetable garden contrast vividly with the dry, brown earth outside of the double perimeter security fences with their cameras enigmatically all facing inwards.

The president’s nephew, Khulubuse, has his own mini-estate that squats behind a ridge to the west of his uncle’s various structures. If you really want to see Khulu’s crib, you have to back up a bit along the newly tarred, un-signposted public road that sweeps right up close to the National Key Point.

Khulubuse, following the tradition of old Nationalist politicians and businessmen before him who had a penchant for naming holiday homes “Costa Plenty” or “Sit en Drink”, has called his spot Imphindumshaye (It Will Hit You Back) after a vigorous creeper found in coastal areas in South Africa. The plant is believed to have powers in warding off thoughts of evil intent towards the occupants of a home and is the fourth-most popular medicinal plant in KwaZuluNatal muthi markets.

From his estate, the president, if he had had an opportunity to rest this past weekend, would have a view, in the distance, of the 16,000 hectare indigenous Nkandla forest – one of the few surviving mist belt forests in the country. The forest features prominently in Zulu history, having offered refuge (those were the days before bunkers, obviously) to two great Zulu heroes, King Cetshwayo and Chief Bambatha kaMancinza.

Nkandla, according to some researchers, either means “place of peace” or “mountains of fatigue” – and it appears that for President Zuma, the latter explanation might be appropriate at present, particularly in light of the Public Protector’s report on the R206 million upgrades to his home expected to be released in about two weeks.

King Cetshwayo was forced to hide in the deep gorges and steep ridges of the forest when stooge chiefs, appointed by British colonists, objected to his return to the Kingdom in 1883 after his incarceration by the British at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. He died a year later at Eshowe, but his grave is about 15km to the west of the president’s home. President Zuma would have grown up imbibing this history.

The legendary Chief Bambatha kaMancinza, who led the uprising against the Natal government in 1906, also found refuge in the dark recesses of the Nkandla forest. This story, too, would have formed part of the young Jacob Zuma’s sense of history and place.

Before the weekend, the Presidency, via Mac Maharaj, had issued a jaunty press statement announcing that “President Jacob Zuma has spent the first day of the voter registration weekend at home in Nkandla, Kwa-Zulu Natal. Earlier the president visited two local voter registration stations in Halabu and Ntolwane Primary Schools respectively….The president will spend the second day of voter registration at home, relaxed ahead of a full week including the State of the Nation Address in Cape Town on Thursday, 13 February.”

But instead of getting his much-needed rest, the president did not spend the Sunday at home and was whisked away to Durban to attend the 60th birthday celebrations of “flamboyant” (as he is wont to be described) security tycoon, Roy Moodley. The horseracing-themed party, said to have cost round R2 million, took place in the cavernous Durban International Convention Centre and featured “white horses at the entrance, near an ANC banner wishing Moodley a happy birthday. Guests walked on a green carpet through arches shaped like horse shoes,” according to one gushing report.

The evening proved a bit of an embarrassment for local politicians and dignitaries when Moodley’s son, Selvan, announced from the stage that his father was “indeed the most powerful man in the country” and casually invited King Goodwill Zwelithini (with absolutely no protocol observed) to come up on stage and propose a toast to his father.

Zulu dignitaries at the party, including Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo, were apparently appalled at the disrespect shown to the King (but hey, that’s what happens when you party with benefactors) – never mind Number One, who is at this point, like it or not, supposedly the most powerful man in the country.

Zulu hierarchies, customs, protocols and rituals are part of the fabric of society in this province and the uncontrolled creep of the presidential estate must be partially viewed from this perspective. Those of us who are not Zulu understand that the president is a Zulu traditionalist but are unable to grasp the much deeper meanings and significance of the president’s ostentatious home and what it represents to Zuma’s rural supporters, many of them poverty-stricken.

Many narratives of this space and its history have been conducted from the outside looking in. There are tomes and tomes of books available on the Anglo-Zulu War and other aspects of the province’s history, the bulk of them written in colonial times. In fact, the early 20th-century historian, Rev A.T Bryant, wrote what many consider to be the “bible” of Zulu history, tracing the detailed lineage and stories of many Zulu clans and families. President Zuma’s family features in Bryant’s accounts and an ancestor dating back to 1699 is recorded as well as the fall of the house (clearly not one as ostentatious as the current one) of an early Msholozi.

Local historian, Albert van Jaarsveld, son of the Afrikaner historian, Floors van Jaarsveld (who authored the history books provided to white children in government schools during the Apartheid years) has lived in the coastal village of Mtunzini for over 33 years and is a retired University of KwaZulu-Natal senior history lecturer. He first encountered the president’s family as a young national serviceman when he was asked to conduct an archeological dig in the vicinity when the government had proposed building a nearby dam. There is an important early Iron Age dig in the area and Van Jaarsveld spent three months living in a tent next to the river a few kilometers from Jacob Zuma’s then-dilapidated traditional homestead.

“The area was so remote you could not reach it without a 4×4. There were only dirt roads and in the rain they would turn to sludge. Buses and cars would just slide and roll down the hill. There was no piped water, there was no electricity, there were no telephone lines. People would walk kilometers with wheelbarrows, if they could afford them, to collect water. Conditions were really, really harsh. I met Chief Zuma back then, Jacob Zuma’s uncle, and he was a wonderful man. The Zumas have a long, long history in the area,” Van Jaarsveld said.

Van Jaarsveld said he began to notice small signs of development in the area when Jacob Zuma was the MEC for Economic Affairs and Tourism in 1994. First came a cell phone mast, followed by piped water and electricity.

“Look, the President’s roots are here in Nkandla. The area and the people here have benefited from him enormously. I can understand why he behaves the way he behaves. I can understand why you would want to uplift people. He is in many ways a chief and regards himself as one, and some people here accept that a chief is entitled to have a house that reflects his status. But the way he has gone about uplifting himself is what is wrong, and I am not sure that he knows that. What he has done for Nkandla, he should also do for Kwangwanase (near Kosi Bay) or Mkuze (Northern KwaZulu-Natal) – many other places all over the country.”

Final thoughts about the president’s home, as it fades like a chimera in the rear-view mirror, include wondering who will pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the extensive complex and its grounds after the president has left office. It is a structure that is going to require enormous amounts of attention, but perhaps the president will have more time on his hands. Who knows? DM

PhotoMain: Nkandla on the hillside (Picture Marianne Thamm)

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