Public works suffers with growing Nkandla headache

Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi tried to justify spending R240-million on President Jacob Zuma's private residence in Nkandla on Friday, just as tried to defend his department's prestige portfolio to lawmakers in the past. But in less public settings he is less conciliatory.

Minutes show that Nxesi told Parliament in March that spending on prestige projects – including Zuma's home and the official residences of Cabinet ministers – had been "over-sensationalised". But just four months earlier he had himself expressed deep frustration with that section of the department.

"Prestige – you are making my life miserable. I used to be well-liked amongst my peers in Parliament. Now I'm rapidly becoming public enemy number one," Nxesi said, according to the written version of a speech prepared for an annual department lekgotla in November. "Prestige manages to combine fruitless and wasteful expenditure on a grand scale with universal client dissatisfaction. You do not fix bad management by throwing more money at it."

On Friday he also had harsh words for his department overall. Public works was in disarray, he said, and could not generate trustworthy numbers to begin with – so the media should view with suspicion any information leaked from it.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela over the weekend confirmed preliminary information-gathering, which could lead to a full investigation, had begun, and that it received several complaints around the amount spent on Zuma's Nkandla residence. Several political parties are apparently also considering different ways to raise the matter in Parliament, and media organisations including the Mail & Guardian's Centre for Investigative Journalism are considering legal avenues to obtain details on spending at Nkandla.

The public works department said Zuma himself started a big upgrade of the Nkandla compound at the same time as government money was spent to secure it. It has provided broad details on the work done, including providing water and sewage treatment systems, but said releasing financial information would be illegal and would endanger the safety of the president.

But comparisons between spending at Nkandla and other projects of the department – provided by the department itself – shows a huge difference in costs.

A schedule of expenditure the department provided to Parliament in May shows 16 private residences of office-bearers had been allocated exactly R100 000 each for security upgrades. Of those, four are in Johannesburg, four more in Pretoria, three in Pietermaritzburg, and one each in Kranskop, Bloemfontein, Polokwane, Durban and Cape Town. Kranskop is just a short distance south-east of Nkandla.

None of the office bearers are identified, although one beneficiary appears to be Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula.

The Ministerial Handbook caps security spending on private residences at R100 000, a number that appears to be used as a target rather than a maximum.

In the same document, a three year project for work around the home of Nelson Mandela in Qunu is valued at R22.8-million. On Friday Nxesi implied that spending on the residences of Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk would be similar to that at Nkandla, although spending "may be at different scales depending on where they are located".

The schedule also shows that spending on Zuma's Nkandla residence will make up around two-thirds of the entire budget for all special and prestige projects, and will cost more than the combined expenditure on inner city regeneration, making government buildings more accessible for the disabled and all other private residences of office-bearers combined.

Phillip De Wet
Guest Author

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