The warning to journalists not to photograph the site was a particularly low point in the charade.
The Nkandla story has experienced many an awkward press conference filled with convoluted logic and self-defeating arguments, with Cabinet ministers doing hairpin turns while claiming to be on the straight and narrow. But State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele seemed hardly to be trying when, on November 21 2013, he utterly outclassed the competition, taking the prize for the most moronic thing ever done in defence of the presidential homestead.
"No one, including those in the media, [is] allowed to take images and publicise images, even pointing where the possible security features are," Cwele told a regular post-Cabinet media briefing, with reference to pictures of Nkandla.
Had the minister misspoken? Would he later amend and expand his remarks? Indeed, not. Under extended questioning, he insisted that publishing pictures of Nkandla was a criminal trespass against the National Key Points Act (NKPA), and that the media were being requested – not yet threatened with prosecution, but definitely asked – to refrain from doing so.
The media were not in a giving mood. "So, arrest us," blared the front page of the the Times the next day. "The picture the state does not want you to see," said the Cape Times. "Look away: What ministers don’t want you to see," read the Star.
Social media was well ahead of the outrage curve. Almost as soon as Cwele had made his call, South Africans started publishing photos of Nkandla, with everything from satellite images to children’s drawings thrown in for good measure. The scent of insurrection was in the air.
The call was never repeated, and no action was ever taken. It turned out that the media had somehow, mysteriously, misconstrued the instruction, a government statement said the following day.
"[The] government has no problem with the media publishing pictures of national key points, including President Jacob Zuma''s Nkandla residence, as it is part of their line of duty," read the statement, in contrast to what had been said less than a day before.
"However, zooming into safety and security features of national key points is a challenge as it compromises national security."
It was the National Key Points Act that gave rise to the great picture insurrection of 2013.
The Act is a piece of apartheid legislation that was introduced in 1980 in response to struggle sabotage. It gave vast and sweeping powers to the defence minister at the time. Once a building or installation is designated a key point, the law says, a minister (initially of defence, later of police as structures shifted, but always somebody in the security cluster of ministries) may "take any necessary steps which, in his or her opinion, may be necessary for the security of these areas in relation to third parties".
In the case of Nkandla, the Act has been cited as a reason for the massive spending; for why that spending cannot be confirmed; why the details of how that spending was allocated cannot be discussed; and why pictures of Nkandla are illegal. Through process of attrition, those claims have mostly been rolled back.
But the Act wasn’t the only officious defence brought into play.
The now infamous Ministerial Handbook quietly became an official document in February 2007, when it was approved by Cabinet. In the following years, it would be used primarily as a way to excuse government spending on flashy cars and expensive hotel stays according to the formulation, "It is allowed by the Ministerial Handbook".
That is exactly how Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi dealt with questions regarding Nkandla before, during and after the NKPA defence was invoked.
"I would like to state categorically that everything that has been approved and carried out at the private residence of the current president is in line with the Ministerial Handbook as far as it relates to security arrangements for private residences of the president," Nxesi told City Press in October 2012.
The beauty of the handbook defence was that it was considered a classified document, so, though cited, it could not be examined. What Nxesi failed to appreciate at the time was that the Mail & Guardian had obtained a copy of the secret handbook, and published it, in April 2011 (to much castigation from the government). And the handbook was clear: state spending on the security of ministers at their private residences was capped at R100 000.
Nxesi and others would subsequently explain that the R100 000 cap did not, in fact, apply to presidents, and that the handbook was never, in fact, the basis for spending at Nkandla. So all that was gained by reaching for the handbook defence was to highlight that spending on Nkandla was 2 000 times more than what was considered adequate for the tier of national leaders just one step below Zuma.