Taking pictures right at the entrance was obviously out of the question, a police member in uniform told the Mail & Guardian when asked this week, but pretty much everything else is okay.
"As long as you don't go through any gates it's fine." He paused. "I'm not giving you permission. If somebody else sees you there and gives you problems, don't say I gave you permission. But I can't stop you on the road and say 'no, you can't take pictures here'. If you are on the road it's fine."
But legislation meant to protect key installations against so-called terrorists states no photography of any kind, from anywhere, at any time, for any reason, without explicit permission – which is, in reality, unobtainable.
The law, introduced in 1980 as a response to "sabotage" in what was then the Transkei, centralised a vast number of arbitrary powers in the hands of the defence minister with little or no executive oversight and accountability. Among its provisions is that the minister 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 2007 an attempt was made to amend the law, which resulted in an equally draconian working document advanced by the South African Police Service. Both the original law and its planned replacement generated intense criticism from trade union federation Cosatu and the Freedom of Expression Institute, among others.
But even as the national government this week continued to use the controversial apartheid-era law to refuse even to confirm or deny broad spending numbers, paranoia was hard to find in Nkandla, the site that the information blackout is supposed to safeguard.
Three constables from the nearby police station, who were conducting an impromptu roadblock right where the view of the compound is at its best, conferred quickly when asked about taking and publishing photos. "What pictures do you want to take?" they wanted to know. "What are you going to say about the president?" Yet they not only agreed that taking pictures from a public spot is within the law, they also helpfully pointed out interesting features as we did so.
Neighbours also do not consider the site sensitive or in need of extraordinary precautions. Have they ever taken pictures of it? Of course: family members elsewhere like to know that their home has a famous resident who is bringing money, development and glamour to the area. Have they experienced any hassles from police or been admonished? The question, universally, brought only polite bemusement.