In a review of the non-fiction writer Janet Malcolm’s recent story collection, Forty-One False Starts, Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote that “Malcolm has always seen rooms as psychological stages, full of props.” One wonders, then, what Malcolm would make of the image on the frontispiece of a document called, “Secure in Comfort: Report on an investigation into allegations of impropriety and unethical conduct relating to the installation and implementation of security measures by the Department of Public Works at and in respect of the private residence of President Jacob Zuma at Nkandla in the KwaZulu-Natal province.”
Above this necessarily poetry-less title squats an image of a Zulu kraal that could function as an exclusive game park in a science fiction movie—one expects to see unicorn zebras with lasers for eyes stalking the perimeter fence. Instead, dozens of thatch-roofed structures huddle in languid groups, interrupted by a pool, a cattle-kraal, an amphitheatre, a helipad, and several late-Roman Empire adornments.
What would Malcolm make of the man who, according to “Secure in Comfort”, used public funds to build this expression of his id and ego? Perhaps she would consider him a typical president of a typical kleptocracy—the Ukrainians who walked through Victor Yanukovych’s blinged-up, taxpayer-funded shag pad would certainly agree. Perhaps she would identify his handiwork as another example of the Big Man mentality—the need for a chump to behave like a Chief, and use the money belonging to those he ostensibly leads to create an architectural manifestation of his power and status. Maybe she’d just see the homestead of a tasteless asshole with access to a bottomless supply of money, and no access to a Woolworths lifestyle magazine.
Regardless, the nature of non-fiction storytelling has always been Malcolm’s beat—principally, that there is no such thing as a story that demands to be told in one way, in the right way. The slant of the story reveals the soul of the author, and not some granite factual underpinning. Likewise, I suspect that in the coming days, “Secure in Comfort” will prove to be one of the more malleable documents in South Africa’s malleable history—pushed and pulled and yanked like the last piece of toffee at a nursery school graduation party. Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector who was responsible for compiling the report, surely sees it as a devastating indictment of Jacob Zuma’s behaviour. The government, on the other hand, sees it as toilet paper. The ANC refuses to see it at all. And whether it will have any impact on our collective future is a question for those unicorn zebras to answer.
In other words, we are well into the stage of this country when there are no such things as facts—when there is nothing to agree upon, no underpinning, no centre. Let us merely say that “Secure in Comfort”—and spend a moment with that title, loll it around in your mind for just a second—is full of findings. Pounded into the hardscrabble earth of rural KZN, then, we find a president’s homestead that was legally in need of a security upgrade. (In August of 2010, it was deemed a National Key Point, and anyone who owns a National Key Point is responsible for securing it. Therefore, Zuma was on the hook for ringing Nkandla with a fence and some cameras, which the Minister of Public Works was legally entitled to front him the $ for).
Over the course of several years, Zuma—or rather a toxic admixture of sycophants, henchmen, Guptas and taxpayers—have dropped a mind-blowing R246 million on the “upgrades”. The report, 433 pages of not-so-awesomeness, physically flops open on page 188, which reveals a graph that rips through all that remains of this country’s soul. Here, we see a continuum of five presidents, beginning with P.W. Botha and ending with Jacob Zuma, and a rendering of how much their respective upgrades have cost. First of all, it’s a bummer to see a scumbag like Botha used as precedent for the current leader of a free Mzansi, but hey—one Commander in Thief is as good as another. Second of all, Zuma’s graph is an inestimable number of times larger than Botha’s when the latter’s is adjusted for inflation. On the page, the rendering looks as priapic and swaggering as Zuma himself, or like a huge middle finger pointed at the South African taxpayer in lieu of a thank-you note.
But Jesus, the stupidity! It takes a village to build a village, and Zuma has acquired a troop of drooling morons in order to facilitate his worst instincts. Take the architect, Minenhle Makhanya, who in a classic case of conflict of interest was working for both the State as a security upgrader, and for Zuma as a home improver. Thing is, while he knew how to overcharge for wallpaper and towel racks, he knew absolutely nothing about fencing. Never should have been there, never should have been hired. According to the report, “There is no evidence that Mr Makhanya had any experience in the design of security related projects. The argument presented that being an architect qualifies him to design security installations has the same implication as arguing that just because I’m a lawyer I’m an expert at any area of the law. That cannot be logical.” When Thuli Madonsela, who most resembles Data from Star Trek: Next Generation, is driven to drollness, you know the country is fucked.
Madonsela notes how none of the institutions that have been created to care for South Africans cared how much money was being blown on Nkandla—not the Department of Defence, not the South African Police Service, not the Department of Public Works. According to the Public Protector, “they took no interest in the extent and outrageous escalation of the cost of the Nkandla Project.”
And scheme this: “It has already been indicated that no specific documents were provided that expressly authorise the building of a clinic.” Or this: “It is obvious that the state has made a major contribution to the President’s estate at the expense of the taxpayer.” Or this: “Clearly, items such as the Visitor’s Centre, swimming pool and terrace, amphitheatre, elaborate paved roads, terraces and walkways and the building of the kraal, with an aesthetically pleasing structure, a culvert with a remote controlled gate and chicken run, added substantial value to the property”.
Chickens wielding remote controls? Yes, South Africans, Welcome to Nkandla.
You will find in this document the usual examples of crooked tendering, or non-tendering, and much cronyism and straight-up idiocy. No plans for the design were ever handed in to the DPW, which has a Scrutiny Committee to deal with exactly this sort of thing. Bulletproof glass cost R3 million when it didn’t need to; no one asked for competing bids on R3 million-worth of lifts. Zuma lied to Parliament about taking out a mortgage to pay for some of the joint; he didn’t bitch about shoddy work in “a timely manner”, and therefore, “the president allowed or caused extensive and excessive upgrades that go beyond necessary security measures to his private residence, at state expense.” The man doesn’t just blow our money illegally, he is incapable of saving a few of the bucks he is not entitled to blow.
So, what’s next? Helen Zille’s official opposition has already put in motion an impeachment process, but it’s no real mystery what will happen to the report. In the case of the Public Protector’s office, the person in charge of putting recommendations into effect is—wait for it—the president! Madonsela has told him that he has to pay back a reasonable portion of the overages, which means his handlers will be writing a cheque. She’s told him to discipline his ministers, which means less than nothing in this country. She’s provided his enemies with a cudgel, but he doesn’t seem to notice their beatings.
But Madonsela has certainly nailed Zuma to history’s grimiest post—he will be forever remembered as a thief, a fool, and a Zulu man who was incapable of managing the affairs of his kraal. Even in Janet Malcolm’s factless world, where the defenders of Truth are mere storytellers, Jacob Zuma will not escape his fate as one of this country’s more reprehensible figures. And Nkandla will be the crown he wears as he slithers into historical ignominy. DM
Photo: Thuli Madonsela, Jacob Zuma.
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.