South Africa

The good times and the Zuma effect in Eshowe, KwaZulu-Natal

By Marianne Thamm 17 February 2014

On the surface, Eshowe, a former colonial military garrison cradled in the embrace of the thick Dlinza coastal scarp forest, does not appear to be the usual tourist honey trap. This small KwaZulu-Natal town of weathered low-rises and utility shopping centres is about a 45-minute drive (25 minutes if you have blue lights) from President Zuma’s home at Nxamalala. It has no malls with high-end shops and restaurants, no beaches, no movie houses. Yet business at almost all of the town’s mostly white-owned 17-odd bed and breakfasts is booming thanks to President Zuma, his family, his extended family, their friends, visits by various officials and the president’s rather large security entourage. Oh, you thought they stayed over at the R66 million complex specially built for his guards and that we all paid for at his private home? Well, they don’t. By MARIANNE THAMM.

If expectant parents Mary and Joseph had been travelling through Eshowe in December 2013 and had needed somewhere to bunk down for the night, they would most certainly have been turned away. That month there was not a single vacant bed or unoccupied room in any of the 17-odd guest houses located in the town as President Zuma, his wives, their children, his extended family, their friends, as well as the president’s rather large personal security entourage descended on the region for the annual holiday break.

While in the same month Minister of Public Works, Thulas Nxesi, explained to the media and citizens of South Africa “approximately R135 million had been spent on basic facilities and services (e.g. including water, power, accommodation etc.) needed to support the security upgrade for SAPS and defence personnel” most, if not all, of the president’s security detail were bedding down in luxury B&Bs in Eshowe – some charging R1,200 a night – and all paid for through vouchers issued by the Office of the President via government’s travel agency of choice, Travel with Flair.

Even when the President stopped off at Nxamalala a few weeks ago to “rest” and visit a few voter registration centres, none of the security team or his personal travelling medical team overnighted at the R66-million “security” village of around 25 thatched rondavels, which are immediately visible on approaching the President’s home from the Kranskop road.

The rise of Jacob Zuma from MEC of Tourism and Economic Development in 1994 to the highest office of the country in 2009 has gone hand-in-hand with the rising fortunes of many in his home province. There has been a significant amount of development in the region, a lot of it rural, including the electrification of remote areas, the supply of water, the erection of cell phone masts, the installation of ATMs and the renovation of schools and hospitals. Not a bad thing, we would all agree, if only the same intensity of development were happening elsewhere in the country too.

President Zuma and his large family’s needs have also benefited local businesses – many of them white-owned – including interior decorators, who provided fittings and furnishings for the President’s sprawling security estate, to catering companies contracted to feed the multitudes who attend various parties and functions, to the local bed and breakfasts that accommodate the president’s support staff.

“I’ve been waiting for someone from the media to come out here for a long time and listen; you can’t print my name, my business will be finished if you do,” joked one guesthouse owner as she sipped iced tea in the tropical heat.

“Look, my B&B has grown but it didn’t only grow because of Jacob Zuma,” said another guesthouse owner, who also asked not to be named. “Yes, there is a lot of business generated by his security guys, but there are other officials who also visit the area. Premiers and their entourages, local politicians, then there are the people who work in Eskom who are in the region for electrification projects.”

NGO volunteers, many from Norway and who visit the area because of the historical links to Norwegian missionaries, also make up significant numbers of visitors the guesthouse, the owner added. But there is no doubt that for those who orbit his life or who linger in his slipstream, President Jacob Zuma has brought good fortune to Eshowe and a few surrounding areas.

A downside, said the owner of another establishment, was that hosting the lower-ranking presidential bodyguards could be “a trying” experience, but clearly one that appears to be more than mitigated by the income generated by their stays. One guesthouse owner disclosed that their income was around R100,000 a month. Not bad for a small, rural town with little in the way of traditional tourist attractions, you would agree.

“They come home late, they drink and they bring women for parties. They don’t pay extra for that. They also don’t eat the food that has been prepared for them and which is paid for. It gets left in their rooms. Sometimes they just pick at it, sometimes they don’t touch it at all,” the guesthouse owner said of the President’s security detail.

Those seeking culinary delights in Eshowe will be bitterly disappointed. Apart from the bistro, Adam’s Outpost, situated at the Fort Nongqayi Museum Village, the only other options are the usual fast food outlets along the main drag.

When they are in town, some in the President’s security are said to favour a local tavern, owned by controversial local businesswoman known variously as Nomatandazo Connie Mtembu or Nomthandazo Mathaba-Mthembu. Mathaba-Mthembu’s unmarked restaurant/tavern is situated in an old house set back from a street and encircled by a security fence. The only indication that it is an eating-house is the discreet green Heineken sign inside the yard. The establishment is closed during the day.

Mathaba-Mthembu owns several businesses in Eshowe, including a funeral parlour, and made headlines in January 2013 when she arrived at Jacob Zuma’s home in a convoy claiming she was there to propose to him. Mathaba-Mthembu has often boasted to some of Eshowe’s residents that she is on first-name terms with the president and is known to whip out her cell phone to show off photographs of herself with Jacob Zuma as evidence of their friendship.

The Daily Maverick spent several days in Eshowe speaking to owners of hotels and guesthouses about the influx of guests and about the possible ethical concerns of making an income out of the President indirectly paid for by taxpayers.

“I’m not happy about it. I don’t like it. But that’s just the way it is. I’m just trying to run a business here. Often bookings get cancelled at the last minute when the president’s movements change. I still get paid.”

“I have thought about it. Yes, it’s like I’m paying myself with my own tax,” our iced-tea sipping owner quips with a laugh.

The owner of one five-star guesthouse confirmed that the Economic Freedom Fighter’s Commander in Chief, Julius Malema, had sent his “security detail” to check out the establishment in December when the leader visited the area on an ill-advised mission to build a house for one of Jacob Zuma’s well-off neighbours.

“They said the place wasn’t good enough so he checked in at another guest house.”

It is still not clear who is bankrolling Malema, but his one-time hero and mentor, Jacob Zuma, has quite possibly influenced the EFF leader’s taste for luxury accommodation. The guesthouse owner who did end up hosting Malema said the Commander-in-Chief was “a pleasure” and refused to disclose any more details.

Some who have done business with the President’s support staff are quick to rise to the president’s defence.

“Look, my opinion is that Jacob Zuma has done a lot of good things for the area. He brought Patrice Motsepe here recently to watch a soccer match at the local school and to help out. I see a lot of development here. The Eskom people and others are here getting electricity and water to the outlying areas. I think it is only natural that a person will want to see their own area uplifted.”

(Incidentally, Motsepe paid for the construction of a Salvation Army church that First, First Lady, Ma Khumalo, attends, a short distance from the Presidential home.)

While the national narrative about Jacob Zuma might be overwhelmingly negative and most daily headlines pivot around the massive R206 expenditure on security to his private home in Nkandla, as well as the high levels of corruption and wasteful expenditure that have occurred on his watch, in his home-province of KwaZulu-Natal the ethical lines are blurred and the President is clearly held in high esteem by many.

“But don’t people see what he’s doing, building Nkandla with the taxpayer’s money? Aren’t they angry about the excessive amounts of wasted expenditure? The daily scandals, the attempts at undermining the judiciary? Don’t they care about the patronage, the cronyism, the erosion of the democratic state?” one may ask.

Well, yes and no.

The answers for some inhabitants of the province – black and white – who benefit enormously from the power and influence that Jacob Zuma wields in the province are not quite that clear-cut.

Even a superficial visit to KwaZulu-Natal will provide evidence of some of the growth and infrastructure developments that have most certainly benefited some people’s lives in the province, especially those in deep rural areas. The provision of electricity and water and the upgrading of schools and hospitals have eased the desperate hardship of rural life in the province. And there is little doubt that a lot of people believe that Jacob Zuma is directly responsible for this growth and development.

Jeremy Steere is a UCT-trained architect who moved to the sub-tropical holiday village of Mtunzini, about 45km from Eshowe, some twelve years ago and who has subsequently worked on a variety of public works projects including the revitalisation of several clinics, schools, community centres and the police station at Eshowe.

Steere’s distinctive designs pay homage to local and existing architectural features combined with a utilitarian industrial edge, and are in evidence in Mtunzini, Eshowe and in Richard’s Bay.

Steere personally met Jacob Zuma during a consultation at his private home at Nxamalala and was impressed by the president’s hospitality.

“We went to discuss some structural matters and I found him to be extremely humble and a wonderful host,” recalls Steere.

“There has been enormous development and if you live here you see the huge and direct impact it has made on people’s lives. Next time you come here I’ll take you out there to show you. I have just finished working on an R18 million stand-alone operating theatre with central sterile services departments (CSSD) where instruments can be sterilised and sent to other hospitals and clinics. I have also just finished work on a R60 million project at the Thembinfundo School for disabled children, about five kilometers from the president’s home. It is wonderful; it has a full-on kitchen as well as a performance hall and dormitories,” says Steere.

And that’s the ethical dilemma of Jacob Zuma: the dancing, singing, people’s president, who seems blissfully unaware of the money haemorrhaging from the public purse as he cuts a destructive swathe through the political landscape. It’s swings and roundabouts with him, the one hand giving, the other taking.


Zuma OneonHely

Lets double back to May 2008, when Jacob Zuma, fresh from his victory after being elected President at the ANC’s 52nd National Conference at Polokwane in December 2007, spent a few nights at a six-roomed, local luxury B&B, One on Hely, located on a slope at the entrance to the village on Hely Drive.

The guesthouse is owned by Ann Walters (and her then-husband Mike). Zuma, who was Chancellor of the University of Zululand at the time, was in the district to attend and make a speech at the annual graduation ceremony. Zuma, his medical team of two and several personal bodyguards spent two nights at the guesthouse.

Of course, a few days after the ANC President and his entourage – which consisted then of around 22 people (the bulk of whom bedded down in Richard’s Bay) – had departed, the inevitable small-town tongues began to wag.

“Apparently,” someone remarked to someone else behind a cupped hand in the supermarket, “Zuma called room service and asked for a bowl of fruit in the middle of the night. I mean, what man, never mind a Zulu man, asks for a bowl of fruit in the middle of the night? Maybe he wanted Ann to deliver it personally if you know what I mean,” nudge, nudge wink, wink.

Ann Walters chuckles when she learns what the village gossip has been.

“No man, what nonsense. He came back late from making his speech at the university and was hungry so he asked me for a snack,” she recalls, sitting at her guesthouse pool deck with its magnificent view stretching across the dense tree-tops of Mtunzini all the way to the blue Indian Ocean in the distance.

“Look, I found him lovely. He was very charming, an absolute pleasure. He was not full of himself. He spoke to me directly and not through staff. He was extremely polite and very humble and I really, really liked him. He made a very good impression,” Walters recalls.

That Jacob Zuma is an accessible leader to the people of his province is not in dispute. In fact, he is apparently so accessible that his minders have had to find ways of keeping the president safe from the endless requests from citizens seeking a private audience with “the chief” and who trudge to his home in Nxamalala and sit and wait in the amphitheatre.

On the second night of the ANC president’s stay at her guesthouse, Walters also watched as a steady stream of people began to appear apparently “out of nowhere”, wanting an audience with Zuma.

“There was all this movement suddenly. The bodyguards began taking all these phone calls. People from all walks of life began arriving. Some took four hours to get here. Most of them brought food in a Tupperware. A lot of them were ordinary working people and they sat here patiently waiting for him. We drew the curtains of the dining room so he could have privacy. He spoke to them all gently like a father for a very long time,” she recalls.

On his first visit to One on Hely, the ANC president had left a polite, hand-written note, big on exclamation marks, in the guest book.

It reads, “It has been good to be here! This place is really a guesthouse! I enjoyed my stay here! I felt your hospitality and your kindness! I felt at home away from my home! Please keep it up! You are making Mtunzini a real place of rest. Thank you very much for your kindness. I will come again!!! Jacob G Zuma.”


He clearly enjoyed the visit and a short while later booked out the guesthouse once again. One on Hely rates back then were R680 a night for double and twin rooms and R500 a night for a single with an extra charge of R80 for breakfast.

“A while later his office contacted me again and booked out the house. I was asked to get a live chicken that we needed to slaughter in a certain way. I catered for 20 people who were expected. The bodyguards had arrived ahead of the president and they were sitting around waiting for him. Then suddenly there was this flurry of activity and they all just got up and left. I asked what was going on and they told me there had been a change of plans.”

Walters learned that one of the ANC president’s daughters had complained that she had not seen enough of her father and had wanted to spend time with him so he had simply checked into another guesthouse in Richards Bay.

And the cost of the rooms and the diner, which came to around R5,000?

“Oh no, I got paid. I never had a problem getting paid. We got paid with vouchers issued from the Office of the Presidency,” recalls Walters.

And therein lies the rub.

Of course we all know that Jacob Zuma is a “nice guy”. Even Helen Zille has remarked on how affable she has found him to be. His regional political power base and support and reward for being ‘his people’ is obvious and more than welcomed by an overwhelming majority of them. But while Zuma might be very good for business and development in ‘his’ parts of KwaZulu-Natal, he also happens to be the president of the Republic of South Africa. The entire country needs development, services and an idea what the future will bring.

Aren’t we all supposed to be ‘his people’? DM

Photo: Traditionally clad Zulu warriors blow horns as members of the Shembe faith (Nazareth Baptist Church), a religious hybrid of Christianity and African traditions, gather at Judea, near Eshowe, in South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal province, October 29, 2006. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings


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