Editorial: An inconvenient Nkandla truth?

President Jacob Zuma has come in for widespread criticism for prioritising exorbitantly costly projects in his homestead and village. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

President Jacob Zuma has come in for widespread criticism for prioritising exorbitantly costly projects in his homestead and village. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

With the ANC's Mangaung conference around the ­corner, it is hard to resist the impression that Zuma has been embarrassed by media disclosures about public money being spent on a private dwelling that will remain in his hands – and no future president will require – when he is no longer at the helm.

Members of the ANC who will decide his future at Mangaung could ­reasonably ask why the roughly quarter of a billion rand being spent on this self-serving project is not being used to build houses or improve hospitals.

The latest official evasion is the public works department's refusal to answer questions the Mail & Guardian's centre for investigative journalism asked under the Promotion of Access to Information Act, on grounds that the very broad secrecy provisions of the Key Points Act cover the homestead.

We suspect the homestead was declared a key point only after the department received our Promotion of Access to Information Act application. It is rather striking that in May, when there was no media hue and cry, public works presented a payments schedule to Parliament revealing that projected spending on the project had risen to R238-million. In other words, it appears quite willing to place information in the public domain – except when the media requests it.

As a law mandated by the transparency provisions of the Constitution, we believe that the Promotion of Access to Information Act trumps the Key Points Act, an apartheid survival.
But the central point is that even the much-maligned secrecy Bill, now in its final stages in Parliament, will outlaw the classification of information for ulterior purposes.

Presidential blushes
This would obviously include the sparing of government and presidential blushes – what other motive can the government have? Our questions focused on the financial and contractual aspects of the development and we specifically stated in our application that we were neither seeking, nor were we interested in publishing, information that is security-sensitive.

To lay to rest public unease about what is happening at Nkandla, a full and frank government response is needed on a number of questions. The department has never provided a clear projection for the overall cost of the project, and the one figure it has provided – R36-million, apparently for works in 2011 – appears to omit a further R26-million in payments to consultants.

According to public works, R10-million of the outlay is for Zuma's account. Given that he has earned less than this in salary as president, how will he pay? Legal analyst Pierre de Vos suggests that the Hawks might be interested in the answer to this question. De Vos has also said that the development appears to violate the Executive Ethics Act, which prohibits the president from using his position to enrich himself, and that the ministerial handbook restricts unrecoverable state expenditure on the security of Cabinet members' private residences to R100 000.

Public works announced that it is investigating who leaked embarrassing internal documents on the Nkandla development. It should realise that until, it answers the public's legitimate questions, this story will not just go away.

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