Nkandla: South Africa’s Long-Running Political Scandal, and a Money Pit

South African president Jacob Zuma is fighting for his political life this month, in the wake of a blistering decision by the country’s highest court, having to do with a home expansion.

Zuma’s critics had insisted for years that state-funded upgrades to the president’s private residential compound near the rural town of Nkandla, Zuma’s ancestral home, were overpriced and unnecessary. The Constitutional Court’s ruling affirmed the accusations, and capped a long-running saga of greed, political malfeasance and architecture run amok. Gideon Brower delivered this report.

The renovations at Nkandla started with the main house, which is built in a traditional style with a thatched roof, says Cape Town-based journalist and author Marianne Thamm. Then the expansion began.

Jacob Zuma’s compound near Nkandla.

“There’s a main house, there’s an amphitheater, there’s a visitor’s center. When President Zuma became the president [in 2009], he would arrive with the security entourage, so the necessity arose for several cottages to be built on the property. Then a tennis court was built because the security detail needed to enjoy themselves while they were there. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

After years of bitter political debate over Nkandla, an independent investigation concluded in 2014 that the president should repay some of the money spent on his homestead, but Zuma and his cabinet refused to accept the report.

South African president Jacob Zuma. Photo by Russell Roberts
South African president Jacob Zuma. Photo by Russell Roberts

Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko told the press that the renovations and additions, including elaborate enclosures for the president’s cows and chickens, were needed to protect the president and his family. A tear-shaped pool on the property was identified not as a swimming pool, but a “fire pool,” an emergency reservoir required by firefighters. Marianne Thamm says a skeptical public took up the term as a punch line.

“When it gets really hot here, we all start joking that we’re going for a dip in the fire pool,” says Thamm. “There are new words we’ve invented in South Africa to circumvent the truth, and fire pool has been one of them.”

Nkandla has come to represent all that is wrong with South Africa, says Thamm, and so has the president. But she also notes that that the culture and tradition of corruption predates Jacob Zuma and his party, the African National Congress.

Cape Town-based journalist and author Marianne Thamm
Cape Town-based reporter Marianne Thamm

“The [Apartheid-era] governments had ministers and people in power who spent just as much money buying farms with taxpayers’ money, renovating their own homes, living a first world life in a country where the vast number of people were poverty stricken and oppressed, with no rights. It doesn’t make what’s happening now right. It just makes it tragic, because we expected better.”

At current exchange rates the South African government has spent more than $16 million on improvements to the property. How much President Zuma will repay remains to be seen. But video footage of the compound suggests that inflated costs, fraud and incompetence have soaked up much of the government’s investment.

“The chicken run’s fallen down. The finishes inside the security village are just appalling, with tiles breaking,” says Thamm. “The place is riddled with scorpions and snakes.”