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Nkandla's weakest link is its chimney

Phillip De Wet

A complaint to the public protector has exposed a possible fire hazard at President Jacob Zuma's homestead.

Experts say the thatched buildings at Nkandla could be at risk from a chimney that is too short. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

It took three security agencies, an army of contractors and at least R71-million to secure President Jacob Zuma's homestead in Nkandla, according to a government fact-finding exercise. Fire protection alone saw the construction of both a reservoir and a "fire pool", which has a remarkable resemblance to a swimming pool. But all of that missed what may be the biggest and most glaring threat to the safety of the president, a complaint lodged with the public protector this week says: a chimney that is far too short.

"It is absolutely elementary," says social worker John Clarke, who is responsible for the latest formal complaint relating to the more than R200-million of taxpayer funds spent on Zuma's Nkandla residence. "Thirty years ago they taught us that thatched roofs need to be specially dealt with. You don't need to be an architect to see that."

The supposed chimney on the roof of one of the main structures of the compound, Clarke says, is too short. This presents a clear fire hazard, which should, by rights, have been detected and rectified during the work of the interministerial task team that investigated public spending at Nkandla. But the formerly top-secret report compiled by that task team and released in December takes no notice of the clear and present danger. That, Clarke told the public protector in a complaint lodged on Thursday, "suggests that President Zuma may be more at risk from the apparent incompetence of members of his own Cabinet than any external threat".

And if the chimney is really a chimney – which is not as obvious as it may appear amid the Byzantine complexity that is Nkandla – that argument could hold some merit.

Building regulations
South African building regulations set complex rules for the construction of safe chimneys, but do not set standards specific to highly combustible thatched roofs. Those who deal with chimneys and thatch have a simple rule of thumb, however: build tall chimneys, certainly taller than what appears to be a chimney in the Nkandla complex.

One fireplace company recommends that a chimney on thatch should extend past the apex of the roof by at least 600mm, another that the difference in height should be no less than a metre. One thatching company says chimneys "should be well above the highest point of the thatch", another that there should be at least 1.8m of clearance from the top of the chimney stack to the closest thatch in any direction. None recommends what appears to be the case in Nkandla, which is a chimney-like structure well below the line of thatch, regardless of other safety mechanisms such as spark arrestors.

The supposed Nkandla chimney also appears to fail to comply with regulations that apply to all roofs, even those not so likely to catch fire as to require a fire pool, said John Graham, the chief executive of inspection company HouseCheck, after examining photographs supplied by the Mail & Guardian.

One regulation, Graham said, "states that the height of any chimney outlet must be 1 000mm above the highest point of contact of the chimney [the base of the chimney stack] and the roof covering [and] at least 600mm above the ridge line of a pitched roof; the top of the chimney stack must also be at least 1 000mm from the roof covering [measured horizontally]. The chimney on the main building in your picture fails on all three of these specs."

That is aside from possible problems with lightning arrestors and the proximity of other thatched dwellings. But in a twist that building regulations do not normally need to consider, the chimney may not be a chimney at all, according to documents relating to Nkandla previously published by the M&G. It could, instead, be part of an elaborate defence against chemical or biological weapons.

In the early stages of the security project in 2009, the documents show, a proposal was presented on providing a filtered air supply to the secure section of a tunnel complex beneath the compound, a supply that could withstand a gas attack. Part of the proposal included an "air intake" that was to be "concealed as a high chimney at the main house".

The documents are not clear on whether the proposal was ever accepted, and it remains unknown whether the chimney functions as a chimney.


Zuma’s builder rebuts fraud conviction

Thandeka Nene, whose company Bonelena did nearly 40% of the state-funded work on Nkandla by value, returned to South Africa last week with a fraud conviction to her name.

As the Mail & Guardian reported in December, Nene was arrested in the Seychelles for trying to pass off a false bank draft worth more than R7-billion.

According to the charges and subsequent conviction, Nene, another South African and a citizen of Sierra Leone tried to open a bank account in the Seychelles backed by a draft from HSBC in London that, had it been legitimate, would have been worth €500-million. The three were arrested before any transactions were made.

Court records show that, shortly before Christmas, Nene pleaded guilty to the charges and was fined just shy of R50 000 before being pointedly asked to leave the country.

The fact that she had not profited from the crime and was a first-time offender counted in her favour, as did the fact that she had admitted guilt.

But, back in South Africa, Nene recanted on her plea, saying through her lawyers that she had been wrongly arrested and falsely charged.

"We have reason to believe that the attempt to besmirch Mrs Nene’s reputation was a political manoeuvre and was spearheaded by the investigating officer in Seychelles who is a former white South African citizen [sic] now living in the Seychelles," lawyers acting for Nene said.


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