President Jacob Zuma was provided with exhaustive details about progress on the security project at his Nkandla complex in November 2010, documents provided to the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism on Thursday show. They cast doubt on his vehement denial in Parliament last week that he was unaware of the scale of construction.
The documents, which refer euphemistically to the Nkandla expansion as "prestige project A", reveal how Zuma's supposed private contribution dwindled by half from more than R20-million to slightly more than R10-million, while the total costs more than doubled.
They also show that taxpayer money was also spent on buildings for the personal use of the Zuma family and not only for new, adjoining security infrastructure, as claimed by the department of public works when first confronted about the R250-million spent on Nkandla.
Also clear from the documents are the large contributions expected from the department of public works for the completion of buildings that Zuma told Parliament were entirely paid for by his family, particularly a new guest residence and two new private residences.
The documents also show that at least one minister became involved in the nitty-gritty of construction at the site after delays mounted.
Although the Mail & Guardian has been unable to verify all the documents independently, some of which are marked "top secret", the timing and some of the details corroborate information previously provided by a highly placed source.
Overseeing the work
Perhaps the most damning of the documents is a letter addressed to Zuma in which the then newly appointed public works minister, Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, writes: "I have taken the view that it is prudent to update you on the progress of the above prestige project", before giving precise expected completion dates for 17 individual components of construction. The letter contains an even more detailed progress report from the project managers responsible for overseeing the work.
Last week Zuma told Parliament he was not aware of the cost of the security installation at Nkandla.
"What the government did, given its own considerations of security, was to build other houses beyond my home for the security personnel," he said during an off-the-cuff answer to questions. "These are not shown on television and these are really the government's houses, but I do not know how much they cost … Now, I do not know where this amount of money went to."
His answer to Parliament focused on three elements of the security upgrade: fencing, bulletproof windows and an underground bunker. But the documents show that he was also kept abreast of progress on a tuck shop, a sewerage treatment plant, the upgrading of water supplies and other elements.
Although the letter to Zuma does not include information about the costs involved, minutes of meetings and internal memos from the department of public works make it seem likely that the amounts would have been brought to his attention.
Mahlangu-Nkabinde was not the only minister deeply involved in the project. In September 2010, her predecessor, Geoff Doidge, appears to have become involved in frantic attempts to fast-track the construction. In minutes of an emergency meeting held at the Nkandla site, Doidge complains about delays in the provision of bullet-resistant glass and the short time remaining for the completion of the interior design.
Changing the public works minister in mid-stride did not prevent high-level continuity of the project – director general Siviwe Dongwana attended both the site meeting with Doidge and later prepared at least one memo to brief Mahlangu-Nkabinde on the issue.
If Zuma's statement that he was ignorant of the costs is accepted, it would imply that neither Doidge nor Mahlangu-Nkabinde considered it worth mentioning that, at the time, the estimated project cost had already exceeded R100-million. A memo also shows that an internal security director in the presidency was involved in the original scoping of the security work, further expanding the pool of people who had access to Zuma and, possibly, a duty to inform him of the cost implications.
Although instructions from the president are never mentioned, a nervousness about the delays – which also delayed building work being done by Zuma's contractors – is evident. "On or about the end of June 2010, it became evident that some of the major activities related to the security installation had not progressed to the extent as was originally envisaged," one public works memo states.
Among the sticking points were that a specialist security consultant had not yet been appointed for the work, 10 months after the project was initiated. Such delays would eventually see Doidge, and others, including surgeon general Veejay Ramlakan, become personally involved in window-frame lead times, expediting the delivery of sections of fencing and establishing how much water would be required for the festive season.
From the leaked documents available and the financial details in the latest documents, it seems that the total cost of construction escalated from R111.3-million in the later part of 2010 to R248-million during 2012.
The documents show that the department of public works was expected to make large contributions for the completion of three residences that Zuma told Parliament were entirely paid for by his family.
These residences were expected to cost R19.4-million, of which the department was going to pay R6.5-million. It would also pay for the bulk of the earthworks and stormwater drains around the new residences.
As of late 2010, Zuma was expected to pay a total of R22.6-million towards the improvements. But in the face of the steadily escalating costs of the project, Zuma's overall contribution appears to have been revised down to R10.6-million.
Shortly before the Mail & Guardian went to print, presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj referred all questions to public works.
The two previous public works ministers could not be reached for comment.
Sally Evans and Lionel Faull work for the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane)