Nkandla Watch

Nkandla threatens more than just Zuma


Not having been treated properly when the opportunity was there, the Nkandla saga has become a malignant tumour in the South African body politic, threatening much more than just the legacy of President Jacob Zuma.

In the way ex-president Richard Nixon of the USA will forever be linked to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, President Jacob Zuma is doomed to have his legacy forever clouded by the ‘security upgrades’ at his private Nkandla residence.

Due to the centralist way in which party political power and government responsibility have become structured under the African National Congress, Nkandla has much wider and more serious ramifications than Watergate ever had.

But it is not only the structure of power relations that has caused Nkandla to become such a wide-ranging problem. Bad choices in strategic options, by both the ANC and its leader, are really to blame.

The National Party (NP) regime of old had a similar arrangement where the party leader was also the head of government. However, when the so-called Muldergate scandal over the misappropriation of defence funds erupted in the late 1970s, the government quickly moved to put a distance between itself and the party on the one hand, and those involved, on the other hand:

  • The late John Vorster, prime minister at the time of the misappropriation, was first moved to the then ceremonial position of state president and retired when the scandal became public;
  • Dr Connie Mulder, central figure in the scandal, and at one time a strong contender for NP leadership, went into the political wilderness. For a while it was under his own banner, and then he joined a right-wing splinter group from the NP, in direct contradiction to the image of the verligte (enlightened) politician he held up while still aspiring to become head of government;
  • The Minister of Finance, who once claimed not to have looked at a document he signed for the transfer of funds, faded from the scene; and
  • Dr Eschel Rhoodie, Secretary of the Department of Information, and responsible for executing clandestine propaganda campaigns emigrated to the USA.

In October of last year, President Zuma and his advisers had an opportunity to get rid of the Nkandla issue and put some distance between that and the ANC.

A wealthy KwaZulu-Natal businessman and friend of Mr Zuma, Philani Mavundla, offered to collect the money that the Public Protector recommended the president should pay towards the upgrades at Nkandla.

That left only the figure due for non-security related work to be determined. And that, at least in part, is what the Minister of Police, Nathi Nhleko, should have done. But what emerged displayed seriously confusing and flawed strategic risk analysis and management.

After first heading for a strategy of going after the officials involved in the project and the president’s own architect – court cases and all – it was decided to stonewall the issue, tough it out with the party’s majority in parliament and its system of committees and justify all upgrades as “security features”.

In March last year the secretary general of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, not only attempted to put a distance between the party and the affair, but also directed attention to individual line function ministers.

Clearly rejecting the notion that a swimming pool at the homestead is a security feature, Mantashe said: “… people are saying the president should have asked questions … to me the question is: What happened to the line ministers who were responsible?”  

About the swimming pool, he said that Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega lied when she described it as a “fire pool” and that action should be taken against her.

He also said the ANC will not apologise for the findings of the Nkandla report and that “if there is a need for an apology, it can’t be the ANC. If need be, it can be from the president or it may be by the relevant ministers”.

Back in the news

Now, fifteen months later, one of those line function ministers, Nathi Mthethwa,  deepens the controversy by calling the swimming pool indeed a “fire pool,” in a police report on the matter and even suggests further “security” spending.

In the meantime the issue is also back in the news, courtesy of:

  • A civil claim of R155m against Nkandla architect, Minenhle Makhanya, and access to the official documents he would need to defend himself;
  • Mr Zuma spinning out his dream of a shopping mall at Nkandla, an area where – according to the website of the municipality where it is situated – the official unemployment rate is 43.9% (53.5% for those between 15 and 34 years of age), piped water inside dwellings 7.8%, flush toilets connected to sewerage 8.1%, electricity for lighting 44.6%  and formal economic development just about nonexistent;
  • Mr Zuma’s visit to the Tshwane University of Technology, disrupted by students in Economic Freedom Fighters apparel heckling him to “pay back the money” (for Nkandla); and
  • Yet another parliamentary committee on the matter becoming bogged down by arguments between the ANC and opposition parties on matters like who should appear before it, while all the time forcing the ANC to internalise the issue in a zero-sum political battle.

It has really become a matter of just more of the same, without any sign of the issue coming any closer to disappearing from the political agenda.

Collateral damage

In the meantime it has already caused considerable collateral damage, not only to the ANC and the image of the country but also to some critically important institutions of democracy. And it is increasingly playing a role in the reshaping of South Africa’s political scene.

One of the first victims of the strategy the ANC has embarked on regarding Nkandla, was the speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, who was forced to choose between what is perceived as in the best interest of the ANC, and neutrality when presiding over debates.

Along the way parliament has also been badly damaged, both in terms of image and as a functioning institution, at times unable to dispense with its normal business. That is besides the extent to which the office of the Public Protector, as a key instrument of the country’s democratic dispensation, has been drawn into the political arena.

On the broader sociopolitical front, with Nkandla as a focal point, we have just seen the birth of an alliance against corruption and for social justice by eight trade unions and 29 civil society organisations. A march on the Union Buildings is being planned for August.

It looks pretty certain that the matter of Nkandla and the issues surrounding it is going to be with us for some time to come, while for the ANC it has already caused damage that is beyond repair. It could have been so different if the right strategic decisions had been made some fifteen months ago.

by Piet Coetzer

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