Sleight of hand doesn't serve a clumsy conjuror well: the state's sleeves have run out of tricks.
The world first learnt of Nkanda in early December 2009 – and it was a project born into a public consciousness already immersed in controversy.
The discovery had been accidental; a Mail & Guardian team was visiting the site of President Jacob Zuma's home on a different project when they stumbled on evidence of a massive revamp, then estimated to be worth a "whopping" R65-million – a far cry from what has since been confirmed as well over R200-million in state spending.
Before the M&G could publish its findings in its Friday edition, the presidency, having been alerted by formal questions, published a pre-emptive denial the day before – an action the M&G described as a significant breach of trust, and which drew a formal protest.
Nkandla faded into the background as, during the course of 2010, Zuma married his fifth wife; admitted to having fathered, out of wedlock, a child with the daughter of a friend; failed to declare interests and assets; and both his son and his nephew were linked with controversial mining deals.
But by the last half of 2012, Nkandla was back with a vengeance. In August of that year the M&G detailed plans for Zumaville, a new town planned on the doorstep of Nkandla. In September City Press first revealed that the costs of Nkandla had exceeded R200-million.
Flurry of denials
A flurry of denials, accusations and political manoeuvring followed, with occasionally ludicrous results. In the face of public outrage, formal investigations were finally launched, even as the finishing touches were being put on the state upgrades of the Zuma family compound.
The first, commissioned by Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi in October, was officially titled the Interministerial Task Team on the Security Installation at President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla Private Residence. It rapidly became known simply as the government's Nkandla report.
In January 2013 Nxesi announced the findings of the report, most notably that Zuma had not personally benefitted directly from state spending at Nkandla, although he confirmed the previously denied and laughed-off R200-million figure. But the report itself was considered top secret, with Nxesi indicating his hands were tied: it was simply too brimful with security-sensitive information to ever be made public.
As a sort of compromise, the report was tabled in Parliament in June 2013. It was sent off to the security-cleared joint standing committee on intelligence (JSCI) for consideration.
In November 2013 the JSCI published a report on the report, saying in considerably more detail the same thing: Zuma had not benefited directly from the state spending, and had not directed it.
Two weeks later the M&G published details of the public protector's provisional report, revealing that version to have found that undue benefit had accrued to Zuma, and recommending that he be made to repay a "reasonable" amount to the state, based on the cost of certain features that she said were in excess of security requirements, which amaBhungane independently costed at about R20-million).
Two working days later, the ANC instructed the government to make the full government report on Nkandla public, although it was phrased as a polite request.
Two days later, the Cabinet announced it would, indeed, release the top-secret report; this was duly done on December 19 2013. Zuma had not ordered the improvements, the country was told for the third time; Zuma had not been involved in the details, and had not benefited unduly from the work – not even accidentally.
The report contained nothing of a sensitive nature relating to security, as the department of public works confirmed in February. No satisfactory explanation was ever given for why it had been classified in the first place, nor any public action taken against those responsible for withholding it from public view.
The major revelations around Nkandla – be they partially confirmed, entirely denied or just simply missed by government investigations – have continued to come from the media.
Access to information
In July 2012 amaBhungane, the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, launched a carefully worded request for documents relating to Nkandla in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, a law that specifically grants access to information required to exercise a constitutional right. The request was denied on security grounds; an appeal was ignored, and ultimately made its way before the courts.
In June 2013, nearly a year into the process and with a long legal battle seemingly still ahead, the department of public works conceded and provided amaBhungane with 12 253 pages of documents relating to Nkandla.
The bulk of the documents were mundane, and few were explosive in their own right. But, taken together, they held intriguing and illuminating stories, first explored in a package of articles published in early July 2013.
The initial set of articles showed how government officials had fallen over themselves to meet completion deadlines set by Zuma himself while not apportioning any of the cost to him. They showed that money had been shifted from other government programmes within the department of public works to accommodate the rising price tag, while the usual budgets and cost controls on Nkandla were thrown out of the window.
They showed that secrecy had been such a big motivator that money not due was paid out at least in part because of a threat that legal action could expose information damaging to Zuma, netting one contractor a tidy amount.
They showed that, despite Zuma's continued insistence that he had not been aware of the cost of the project, various officials had claimed to have received instructions from him and provided him directly with updates. And they showed that initially R10.5-million of the project cost had been seen as being for Zuma's account, but that account dwindled to what was in effect zero – without any clear reasons for this dramatic change of organisational heart.
The revelations of the R200-million price tag and the "fire pool" (a feature the government report insists serves as a water reservoir from which buckets can be filled in the event of a fire, despite its startling resemblance to, and apparent use as, a swimming pool) have spurred considerable public outrage, including a call for a vote of no confidence in Zuma by the Democratic Alliance, but with no formal standing it has had little further impact.
That may change with the public protector's report.
Thuli Madonsela herself admits that her office, established as a watchdog under chapter nine of the Constitution, wields mostly "soft power"; it relies on persuasion and cajoling and cannot make findings of guilt or innocence, nor institute sanctions. The public protector is, however, generally respected and considered authoritative, and failure to act on her recommendations can cause problems both political and technical, if they were to form the basis of civil court actions.
The public protector investigation into Nkandla was under way by October 2012 and "90% complete" by April 2013. The following five months saw painfully slow progress, with information not forthcoming from Zuma's office about the reasons for the delays, but by mid-October 2013 the report was, by Madonsela's measure, just about complete.
In terms of a process adopted by Madonsela, though not required in law or regulation, her office shares draft reports with affected parties before they are published. Comments from the affected parties can have a significant impact on the final version of such a report.
But on November 8 last year, ministers in the security cluster approached the high court in Pretoria to request a restraint on the release of the report – on security grounds.
In terms of a subsequent interpretation by Madonsela's office, the state demanded a radical departure from that practice. The state wished the draft Nkandla report to be submitted to security ministries to comment on security issues, redraft the report based on input, submit the new draft to security ministries again, redraft it again based on input, then share it with affected parties (which would include security ministries), redraft it based on input, and then release it to the public.
If there was any dispute on what could constitute a security threat, the security ministries would have the option of approaching the courts to demand what would, in effect, be censorship of the draft report.
The state court bid was withdrawn in light of a compromise of sorts: on top of a submission on specific security concerns with the report, the state security ministries would appoint a panel of experts to advise Madonsela's office on potential breaches.
As the dust settled, Madonsela grew bullish about potential release dates. In early December 2013 she said her report could possibly be published before Christmas, but would more realistically become public in mid-January. In mid-January she predicted that she would be able to announce a release date in early February.
But in late January the M&G revealed that former police commissioner Bheki Cele, who had partial oversight over part of the Nkandla project, had objected to some of the draft findings, and that his objection could further delay the release of the report.
Political pressure on Madonsela – both personally and on her office in general – has been growing for some time, with much of it correlating with the investigation into Nkandla and its prominence. In October 2013 Madonsela and members of Parliament's justice portfolio committee got into a heated debate about her office's mandate and funding during an annual report briefing. Madonsela noted, somewhat wryly, that such concerns seemed to have arisen only in 2012.
After the M&G published details of the report in November 2013, the ANC accused Madonsela and her office of leaking it, with implied political motives.
In January the ANC adopted the official position that Madonsela's report should come to the same findings as the government report into Nkandla, as it drew from the same set of facts. It also noted that releasing the report shortly before elections would be a political act, hinting that Madonsela was opposed to the ruling party.
Issues of mutual concern
In February Madonsela met ANC leaders to discuss, in the words of the party, issues of mutual concern. Madonsela's office would say only that she briefed party leaders on her on her work. Nkandla was understood to have been a major point of discussion, but with thinly veiled accusations of political bias directed at Madonsela.
Other evidence of pressure has had no directly visible link to Nkandla, other than timing.
In February Zuma, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane all stayed away from a high-profile summit of African ombuds organised by Madonsela. Their absence was considered a snub, although each professed to have been simply too busy to honour their commitments.
Earlier this month Tina Joemat-Pettersson, minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, said she had turned to the high court to seek to set aside findings that in effect questioned the operation of her office.
In late February the Communication Workers' Union called on Madonsela to resign because of her findings on SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng. And last week, a group of religious leaders sought to cast the demons out of Madonsela's office on the basis of her findings against Motsoeneng.
This is an edited excerpt from Nkandla: the Great Unravelling, a forthcoming M&G long-form journalism project to be published as an e-book on March 28.