The distance between the president and the scandal that is his home has again shrunk noticeably.
When the public protector reported that President Jacob Zuma had received undue benefit from state spending at his luxury Nkandla homestead, the response – after government attempts at sinking the investigation and keeping its findings secret had failed – was swift. Even as Thuli Madonsela was making her report public, Cabinet ministers started up the well-oiled machine of spin, denial and misinterpretation.
Zuma was largely silent on the matter, saying he would respond only once the SIU report was done. Yet, oddly, on Thursday he tabled his report to a Parliament in recess, taking account of the SIU’s interim report to him, as well as the public protector’s and the ministers’, but reducing all of them to a perfunctory set of claims and responses – most of which shift the blame elsewhere. Even more puzzlingly, in what might well be a damage control exercise, Zuma did so a week before the SIU was to hand over its final report to him.
The SIU’s explosive R155-million lawsuit against Zuma’s personal architect Minenhle Makhanya, lodged on Monday, makes the SIU’s findings clear. Working within the bounds set by Zuma himself, through a proclamation authorising the investigation, the SIU found Makhanya individually and entirely responsible for R155-million in extra, unnecessary and downright dubious spending.
If the high court in Pietermaritzburg agrees that Makhanya is at fault to the extent the SIU claims, it would be hard to argue that Zuma himself should be on the hook for repayment. Yet, in offering up Makhanya for sacrifice, the SIU – mandated by Zuma himself – tells a story the president must surely find uncomfortable. It explains that if Zuma, as he has consistently claimed, had no direct insight into the scope of the Nkandla works, it was because ministers he appointed had failed him.
It lays the blame for overspending at the door of an architect appointed by the state only because he had first been appointed by Zuma. It details money spent on air conditioning for the Zuma family, the infamous “fire pool”, and other upgrades that, it states in no uncertain terms, were not required for security reasons. And it shows that R60-million’s worth of work can simply not be accounted for; money paid to contractors who were at the same time working on the private upgrades Zuma insists his family paid for.
From what we now know about the SIU investigation, no fingers yet point at Zuma directly, even if the distance between the president and the scandal that is his home has again shrunk noticeably. But the coming weeks, and the decisions taken, will show just how uncomfortable that distance has become.
Will Zuma release the full SIU report when it is handed to him? Will that report show that the president had provided details on his private upgrades, and to what extent those had overlapped with work paid for by the state? Will Zuma directly address whether there had been cross-subsidisation between the two?
Or will the president presume that his bland, pre-emptive report to Parliament on Thursday is sufficient and that he’s done with the matter?