Mandy Rossouw visits Jacob Zuma's home and heartland to find out what it says about South Africa's new president.
Two roads lead to Nkandla and neither is an easy drive. Rare visitors to this one petrol-station-and-a-bottle-store village in the heart of Zululand are met by a welcome sign peppered with bullet holes—evidence of the low-intensity political war that still flares up from time to time between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC.
This is the heartland of President Jacob Zuma, the man who started out the decade as a sacked deputy president, then survived a series of potential disgraces - including rape and corruption charges - to emerge triumphantly as the country’s leader. Zuma’s chief adversary through all this was his former boss, Thabo Mbeki.
Much of Zuma’s down-home appeal lay in exactly what made Mbeki the rejected outsider. While Mbeki was the detached, cosmopolitan player, Zuma was the self-described herd boy who made good, the traditionalist and family man, a quintessential son of the soil. Zuma could still smell the earth from which he came. Mbeki, though he too had been raised in a rural outpost, could not shake the village dust off his heels fast enough.
At Polokwane, where it mattered, Zuma had the upper hand—a place called home.
Controversially, Nkandla is where Zuma - not withstanding his three official residences - is now building his own version of Camp David, the hearth, home and informal meeting place of a succession of United States presidents.
But the South African president’s homestead, Nxamalala—about 30km outside Nkandla—is more than that. Soon, Nxamalala will feature both a new kraal for his private herd of cattle and a landing pad for helicopters. Here the traditionalist meets the 21st-century man: for Jacob Zuma, home is not only central to his style of leadership. It is central to his very being.
Nkandla boasts potholes that look like the work of stray meteors. Even for those wanting to visit, getting into this area requires time, commitment and, if not a helicopter, at least four-wheel drive.
This is a world apart, a place where time seems to stand still. Cows roam the streets, every man has more than one wife and rank unemployment means that getting out of Nkandla - at R56 for a round taxi trip to Eshowe - is almost as hard as getting in. Ultimate authority lies with the local chief - apparently even the president pays him a courtesy call when he comes home for weekends, though his visits have become fewer since he took office in May.
“You have to speak to the chief first,” we are told by a woman at the local taxi rank. “We can’t talk and then the chief comes and asks why did we talk to you? He first needs to give permission.” We are told more or less the same thing everywhere we go.
Still, everyone is happy to give directions to “Zuma’s place”.
The Nxamalala homestead, undergoing its R65-million presidential facelift, is sensitive to the surrounding landscape—clusters of thatched rondavels, chickens and goats roaming the property—yet it leaves no doubt that Nkandla’s most famous resident has “arrived”.
The compound is enclosed by green palisade fencing, leaving it - for a president’s residence - refreshingly visible. Several satellite houses surround the big main house, which is presided over by Sizakele, Zuma’s first wife. The Zuma compound is home to an array of women and children. The only man living on the property is a nephew, Bongani, who was dispatched from Durban to look after the family’s countless cattle.
Zuma is keen to develop Nxamalala as his Camp David. The photo-opps and press conferences will happen in South African’s version of the White House—Mahlamba Ndlopfu (“the new dawn”)—but the big decisions will be taken here.
That, at least, is the idea.
The Lindela store is within walking distance of the Zuma compound. It stocks the most basic of basics - soap powder, toilet paper and samp. Here, a bar of chocolate or a can of cola are luxury items that simply don’t feature.
But in Nkandla, it seems, people get by with the little they have. The area’s remoteness and the preoccupation of its people with land and family makes it a pastoral bubble world. Though Zuma has made sure that many households now have electricity and access to government services, the way of life has not changed fundamentally. No television aerials dot the landscape and everywhere our car is eyed with suspicion by the locals. People here speak their own brand of Zulu. English is a foreign language.
On his way to the Sunday morning church service, we catch up with Moses Zuma, the president’s grandson. It is he who tells us about his grandfather’s plans to build a new kraal on the hilltop, so that “there will be no cattle in the road like now”.
Zuma prides himself on being a man of all people - a quality Mbeki aspired to - but his family comes first.
Says Moses Zuma: “We can phone him from 5am to 5.30am - that is the time for us to talk to him. We can talk about anything, what is going on here, about family issues. But we have to be finished by 5.30am, because then he goes to the bathroom.”
When Zuma comes home, a long line of residents waits for him outside the palisade fence. He dutifully sits from dawn until dusk listening to each of his petitioners - from those with business propositions to those who want to talk about problems in the community.
Insiders say this is why plans for the compound’s expansion include a visitors’ centre: Zuma wants his visitors to have shelter from the hot Zululand sun while they wait.
In this, as in other ways, Zuma takes his cue from former president Nelson Mandela.
It is in his nature to think about the needs of others and heed the protocols of traditional life. Another feature planned for the Nxamalala homestead is a memorial garden in which ancestral graves will be preserved. This will be laid out right next to the helicopter pad.
Once again, taking his inspiration from Mandela, Zuma hosts an annual Christmas party.
On December 27 thousands of children from the area are treated to food, gifts and toys. Orphans get school uniforms and book bags.
Nkandla may be set to become a high-end hub of global diplomatique, but not everyone wants to stick around for the fun.
Fifteen-year-old Nelsiwe Mkhize wants to hit the road, preferably the N3. “I want to be a nurse or a teacher,” she says, “But not here. I want to go away, to iPitoli. Pretoria.”
Why? “There I can do more things, I can then maybe even go overseas or somewhere. But I first want to get to Pretoria.”