S.Africa govt clears Zuma in costly private home revamp
South Africa's government on Thursday cleared President Jacob Zuma of any wrongdoing during a controversial $20-million revamp at his private home, in a move criticised as a whitewash.
Unlike a recently leaked watchdog report, the state probe into the spending of 206 million rand (14.5 million euro) on security upgrades at his rural village home handed Zuma the all-clear.
“Allegations that the president had used state resources to build or upgrade his personal dwellings are unfounded,” Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi told a news conference.
The splurge on the house nestled in the verdant hills of Zuma’s political stronghold has sparked an uproar amid an economic crunch in a country where 10 million live on social grants and many have only tin shacks above their heads.
The government report said the state was obligated to beef up security at private presidential residences and justified some of its controversial spending on security risks.
This included those posed by a tuck shop on Zuma’s grounds, neighbouring villagers, a chicken run, a cattle enclosure and flammable thatched grass roofing.
“President Zuma did not ask for security installations,” said Nxesi.
“No state funds were used to build the president’s private residence,” he added.
Zuma, he said, was in the dark about the costs of the upgrade, which has been dubbed “Nkandlagate” after the name of his village in rural KwaZulu-Natal.
The upgrades included adding a “fire pool” to be used for firefighting as well as relocating neighbouring families.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance slammed the findings as a “whitewash”, saying it was a “poorly disguised ruse” to clear Zuma.
“It is an insult to all South Africans, and a smack in the face of real accountability,” said the party’s parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko.
The government’s findings appeared to be at odds with a leaked draft report by the country’s corruption watchdog.
This claimed that Zuma had personally benefitted from the renovations, and that he should repay the state for the parts of the renovation not linked to security.
According to the provisional report by the corruption watchdog, known as the Public Protector, the upgrade also featured two helipads, a clinic and housing for a police protection unit.
The public protector’s probe found that some of the so-called security upgrades were “improperly” woven into the project at “enormous cost” to the taxpayer.
Despite clearing Zuma, the government acknowledged “many supply chain irregularities”, especially where service providers and buying of goods were concerned and said a probe was underway.
“Large variations in orders and the high percentage of consultancy fees point to the possibility of overpricing and collusion,” said Nxesi.
With elections due early next year, Zuma’s popularity is taking a bashing.
He was heckled in front of nearly 100 sitting and former heads of states during anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela’s memorial service last week.
A recently released poll of 1,000 ANC voters showed that 51 percent wanted Zuma to quit. A third were less likely to vote for the ruling party due to the Nkandla allegations, while 42 percent thought he had abused taxpayer funds.
The country’s largest labour union, a traditional ally of Zuma’s ruling ANC, is meeting for a special congress this week to decide whether to continue its backing of the party in next year’s elections.
There have been suggestions the union could call for Zuma’s resignation over “Nkandlagate”.