The governing party's most senior members believe they can limit the Nkandla damage and win votes ahead of the upcoming elections.
ANC national executive committee members are resigned to defending Nkandla and other contentious issues ahead of the elections. The party's top leadership is either firmly on President Jacob Zuma's side or doing what it can to spin the issue to ensure the ANC gets voted in, the Mail & Guardian has learned.
"Now, as we sit, we can't wish away that we had to build a security upgrade for the president and put up infrastructure and so on," said one NEC member.
He added that a revolt against Zuma over the matter from within the party is unlikely. "Zuma is the face of the party; he is the face of the campaign. You can't change that at this stage."
Senior ANC leader Lindiwe Zulu said after the meeting on Thursday that the party's top brass are happy with Zuma's explanation that he did not personally ask for the upgrades – the government had. She also criticised public protector Thuli Madonsela for ignoring the findings of the government's interministerial task team report when she investigated the matter.
Madonsela's provisional report, leaked to the media late last year, found that he benefited personally from the R206-million upgrades.
Zulu said the ANC will push for Madonsela's report to be released as soon as possible. She said the party does not expect Madonsela's final report to touch on security matters.
"The security element cannot be debated. There are certain elements that can't be discussed at all."
She said the ANC will do everything in its power to defend the interministerial recommendations that clear Zuma and target senior government officials, including former public works deputy minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu and former public works minister Geoff Doidge.
Bogopane-Zulu, who is now deputy minister for women, children and people with disabilities, last month disputed the findings of the interministerial report, which recommended that she and Doidge should be investigated. He is currently South Africa's ambassador to Sri Lanka.
Addressing journalists at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit on Thursday, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe reiterated his view that, if Madonsela failed to release the report before the elections, her conduct would be read as political. He said the report has been a long time coming and the party is keen to read it.
"The public protector has been working on that report for a long time; we don't expect her to take another six months."
Timing is key
Mantashe said the party would be suspicious if the timing of the report's release seemed dubious.
"If the public protector releases it close to the elections, we will actually assume it will be intended to tilt the balance of forces in the election," he warned during the question-and-answer session.
"It will be intended to muddy the waters in the election campaign."
He also went off script earlier in the briefing to make other remarks about Madonsela.
"Our understanding is that these two state institutions must be reading from the same set of facts and, if there are divergent determinations made and findings, it is an issue that will be of interest and we will have to interrogate," said Mantashe.
Madonsela has previously said she would be ready to release the final report by the end of January.
The M&G this week also spoke to two other ANC NEC members who attended the meeting, but they wanted to remain anonymous as they were not authorised to speak to the media. But they indicated that the ANC did not have any choice but to defend its president.
A number of NEC members went into the meeting seeking explanations about the Nkandla upgrade.
"Our biggest concern was: Was public money spent?" the member said. "They showed us a breakdown of expenses."
He added that there is greater ease about the matter now.
Regarding Nkandla, the NEC members the M&G spoke to were confident that nothing was untoward – or at least said they were resigned to dedicating themselves to clarifying the public relations nightmare to the electorate before the elections.
"There are certain negativities that have arisen," they said. "It is our job to address those when we campaign."
The same applies to other contentious issues for the ANC, including the unpopular e-tolls in Gauteng.
Discussions by the NEC earlier this week in Nelspruit seem to have convinced members that the strategy for dealing with these election issues is to spin the matters effectively, convincing the public that they aren't as bad as they seem.
But there has been a backlash from some against Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi and others involved in communicating with the public over the Nkandla upgrade.
"Those guys are terrible communicators … There has been miscommunication or sometimes over-communication from them," said the member.
"Now it is up to the party to go out and communicate."
Another NEC member said that the matter of the controversial "fire pool" had been addressed and they were told it is simply a concrete hole in the ground to store water for fire-fighting, as a bucket does not have the capacity to carry that much water – 40 000 litres was the figure they were given.
"You can't swim in that," the second member said. "One of the ministers was saying to us, when she went there with the public protector, the pool had algae."
One likened it more to a pit, although another cautioned that, not being engineers, they could not say for sure. But again, the consensus was that poor communication has surrounded the issue and the NEC members have resolved to work to "help the public understand".
Zulu said the ANC had no choice but to support the government on the implementation of the e-tolls.
"The ANC took a firm decision on e-tolls. We must explain why the decision to implement the e-tolls to the people. Sanral must implement them [the e-tolls] properly. They must not put the ANC in a difficult position. It is their job to do that," said Zulu.