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South Africa: Nkandla, the land where Jacob Zuma is king

By Romain Chanson
Posted on Monday, 25 October 2021 18:36, updated on Tuesday, 26 October 2021 15:35

South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma on 4 July 2020 outside his residence in Nkandla. EMMANUEL CROSET/AFP

South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court, has been released on medical grounds. He is expected to serve the remainder of his sentence at his estate in Nkandla, the expensive home that he has made the backbone of his political and judicial battles.

The countryside and nothing else.

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma was born on 12 April 1942 at the Nkandla estate, which is situated within the remote hills of KwaZulu-Natal. Once off the highway, you have to drive along winding roads with potholes. Cattle sometimes get in the way, an appropriate reminder to the visitor that one is meeting a man who – as a child – was a herdsman. But Nkandla Homestead’s opulence tells another story: that of a former president who was accused of corruption and embezzlement.

The property is rustic in style, with traditional round thatched houses. From the outside, there is nothing flashy about the property. Yet it is at the heart of one of Zuma’s biggest scandals. As soon as he was elected in 2009, the new head of state set about securing the property. What was supposed to be an upgrade turned into an unbridled expansion project. The cost of the project rose from €1.5m to €12m, financed from public funds. “Secure in Comfort”, as Thuli Madonselaa, the public protector at the time, ironically summarised in her investigation.

Each development was justified in a ministerial report favourable to President Zuma. The swimming pool is a fire-fighting pool. The amphitheatre is a soil retention wall. Add to this a visitor centre, a clinic (claimed to be essential in this medical desert) and a helipad. The cattle wander around inside a new enclosure and even the barnyard has been redesigned for safety, as the poultry now nest in a henhouse where they won’t set off motion detectors.

Stereotype

These so-called justifications are not convincing anyone. Worse, they make people abroad laugh. On US television, South African comedian Trevor Noah entertains his audience with the example of the fire pool. But in South Africa, taxpayers are fuming. “I think what struck South Africans was that this was the stereotype of the African politician who uses public money to build himself a luxury palace,” says journalist Chris Roper. He and his colleague Mandy Rossouw first broke the story for the Mail & Guardian in 2009.

Year after year, NkandlaGate snowballed and undermined Zuma’s time in office. The head of state faced impeachment proceedings in 2016 because he ignored the Constitutional Court, which had ordered him to reimburse part of the costs. The opposition wanted him to fall, but the President managed to save his seat thanks to the support of his political family, which rejected the motion of censure. “Nkandla was the tip of the iceberg,” says political scientist Ralph Mathekga. “After that episode, he continued to accumulate worries until he resigned [on 14 February 2018].”

When he left the presidency, Zuma found refuge in Nkandla. 600km separated him from the judicial institutions that demanded his release in Johannesburg. First the Zondo Commission, which was investigating the suspicions of corruption that marked his two terms of office (2009-2018) and wanted to hear from him. Then the Constitutional Court, which wanted to convince him to testify before the commission. Zuma felt he was being hounded by the judiciary and so he turned his back on the magistrates, responding only with inflammatory statements.

Several figures, acting as mediators, then rushed to Nkandla to convince Zuma to lay down his arms. Gleaming convoys of SUVs with tinted windows passed through the countryside of KwaZulu-Natal. Julius Malema kicked things off with a Tweet.

“@PresJGZuma can we please have tea urgently?” tweeted the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, who once fiercely opposed Zuma.

“Thobela Moshabi. I have seen your request to share a cup of tea. As you know, Nkandla village is home for me and that is where my time is spent these days. Tea I have plenty of, you ar emomre than welcome to come over for a cup,” responded Zuma. This and the following meetings were real tea parties. Zuma received many people at his home, even Bheki Cele, the minister of police.

Fortress

Mediation flops and the judiciary added pressure on Zuma. The Zondo Commission applied for a contempt of court with a two-year sentence. When the first arrest threats were made, a security force was deployed outside the property. These were veterans of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s former armed wing. They arrived on 14 February in military gear, wearing fatigues and rangers. When a police car approached, they made it turn back.

“Jacob Zuma has turned Nkandla into a fortress,” says Roper. During the demonstrations in his support organised in front of his estate in July, the veterans acted as security guards, sometimes forming a human chain to block the estate’s main entrance. Several dozen of them are said to still be present at Nkandla, even though Zuma has a presidential guard.

“We will defend President Zuma until the end of our days,” says Sanele Zombi. The veteran sees Nkhandla as his second home and the Zumas as his second family. Zuma continues to enjoy some of the veterans’ support because he fought in Umkhonto we Sizwe and led the ANC’s intelligence. Carl Niehaus, their spokesperson, is Zuma’s biggest advocate.

Themba Nhlanhla Calvin Dlamini, one of the President’s grandsons, describes the small, remote village as “like a kingdom. It’s a place that welcomes his family, a place that shows how important he is to the country, a place that is open to visitors,” says the 26-year-old who lives there. He adds that four of Zuma’s six wives have their own homes there. The other traditional accommodation – huts – are allocated to the wives’ families. Domestic workers also stay on-site and are available to the residents.

Offspring as a unit

Zuma’s family plays an important role in defending his interests. The 79-year-old father can count on his offspring to rally around him.

Edward Zuma is remembered for standing day and night in front of the gate at Nkandla, ready to sacrifice himself if a policeman tried to cross the estate’s threshold. Duduzane, a jet-setter and aspiring political leader, was seen timidly haranguing the crowd alongside his father. Duduzile, his twin, is very active on social media and sat to the left of the chief at a press conference held at his home. Nkandla “is a university of life,” she tweeted in March. “May God protect Nkandla so we can continue to drink from @PresJGZuma’s fountain of youth,” she continued.

After two months in detention, one of which was spent in hospital, the ex-convict was quietly returned to his family after being released on medical parole on 5 September. He is expected to serve the remainder of his sentence, which was upheld by the Constitutional Court on 17 September, in Nkandla. “It is with great pride that I wear the badge of a political prisoner,” said the number one prisoner in Nkandla, a comfortable 3-hectare prison.

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