As the epicentre of the greatest political scandal gripping South Africa, you would think Nkandla would be a hostile place for the ANC to campaign. You’d expect frothy, stinging waves in what Thuli Madonsela calls a “sea of poverty” around Jacob Zuma’s island of luxury. Well, the party’s Zweli Mkhize spent Monday handing out T-shirts there and he says not a single soul asked him about the R246 million upgrades. Surprised? So was ALEX ELISEEV.
After the release of Thuli Madonsela’s Nkandla report, the ANC’s Gwede Mantashe told reporters gathered at Luthuli House that it was the media that had invented the scandal around Jacob Zuma’s home and that regular South Africans couldn’t care less about it.
We all had our doubts about this amazing claim, figuring that blowing a quarter of a billion Rand on one man’s house, by diverting the funds from much-needed government programmes, would upset at least a few voters.
Having spent a day campaigning in Nkandla, the ANC’s treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize has proved to us that our fears were misguided. He says everyone he spoke to was “excited” and “enthusiastic” about life and the prospect of voting for the ANC. Further, not a single person he encountered so much as raised the issue of Zuma’s private “township”.
Along with an army of 300 volunteers (please, stop visualising the bare-chested Spartans covered in their Persian enemies’ blood) Mkhize visited a shopping complex, a taxi rank and the streets of Nkandla town. He says the volunteers handed out pamphlets and T-shirts, giving away hundreds in a short space of time.
The ANC heavyweight says they encountered nothing but people who were “positive about the development taking place in the area” and grateful for the electricity which was switched on “a few weeks ago”. There was lots of excitement, Mkhize says, about the schools, roads and clinics which have been built or refurbished.
“People have a sense of growth and development in the town of Nkandla,” he announced proudly.
When I asked him whether there was any backlash over the findings of the Nkandla report (the one that found that: Jacob Zuma benefited unduly from upgrades which had nothing to do with security, violated the Executive Ethics Code, tacitly accepted a situation where a “licence to loot” was given to all involved, misled Parliament [“by mistake”], and was ordered to both account to Parliament and pay back some of the millions spent) this was Mkhize’s response:
“I’ve spoken to so many people. None of them have raised the issue of the Nkandla project. Instead, people have been talking about things which are real and tangible in their situation, for example the issue of jobs. Also, some of the people were just proudly saying to us their children are at schools and some were talking about the FET colleges being constructed here. I’ve not had anyone ask me about the Nkandla project. They were dealing with concrete day-to-day issues.”
I asked again to be sure.
“No one has raised it with me,” Mkhize repeated. “What they have raised is concrete issues of service delivery.”
On the face of it, there is nothing surprising in Mkhize’s answers. There’s a month to go before elections. The ANC is on the campaign trail. Mkhize’s job is to promote his party, not to talk about the stark realities which lurk behind the T-shirt queues. But to say that not a single person raised the Nkandla issue is either not a true reflection (to protect Number One) or an indication that the ANC leadership is so far removed, isolated or protected from what real people care about that they exist in a completely different realm to the rest of us.
In what universe does a senior ANC representative go to Nkandla and not face a single question about the “excessive and unconscionable” waste of money on a man who now has “Rolls Royce” security in a municipality which has (just a few days ago) been declared by Statistics SA as one of the country’s poorest? An area where the ANC lost a by-election? An area where the children of Zuma’s neighbours miss school because they have to fetch drinking water from kilometres away?
With each passing day, as the ANC continues to turn a blind eye to the Nkandla scandal, the lie grows bigger. And these comments from one of its top officials is further proof of it.
I also asked Mkhize whether he believed that the upcoming election would go down in history as the “Nkandla election”. No, he said, arguing it would be about a lot more than that.
“Elections are not about Nkandla. It’s more about how the country is faring and how the ANC is taking the country forward.”
Mkhize spoke about “challenges” and “issues”, as well as the next twenty years of solving poverty, eradicating unemployment, building the economy, boosting infrastructure and developing education. He called it the “experiment of democracy”, which he says is a positive story.
“We’re on a journey together,” he concluded, almost poetically.
No right-thinking individual can argue that South Africa is not a better place now than it was twenty years ago. But the problems (not challenges) of today can only be fixed through an honest assessment by those in power and the bursting of the magical bubble of happiness and sunshine which seems to follow ANC leaders as they campaign around the republic.
What is needed is strong, honest leadership, not another court appeal against the freedom of speech. (In case you haven’t heard, the ANC has confirmed its challenging acting judge Mike Hellens’ ruling on the Nkandla SMS dispute with the DA.) What is needed is an admission that South Africa and its people care deeply about Nkandla – from university students in Johannesburg to township residents in Limpopo, from religious leaders to trade union movements – and that the media did not make the whole thing up. (Neither did the DA, by the way, although it’s draining it for every drop of political juice available.)
What we don’t need is Jacob Zuma squeezing himself through another legal loophole or the scores of ANC-alligned individuals insulting Thuli Madonsela.
And yet, the ANC’s road trip through Nkandla is, unfortunately, a sign of how far we are from all of that. DM
Alex Eliseev is an Eyewitness News reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev
Photo: President Zuma’s Nkandla compound. (Rogan Ward/Reuters)
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine