Editorial: Private deals that demand scrutiny

A fortnight ago President Jacob Zuma stood at the rostrum in the National Assembly and made an impassioned defence of the lavish renovations under way at his Nkandla residence. His family, he said, with an air of outraged propriety, was footing the multimillion-rand bill for new houses. As for security upgrades and additional facilities insisted upon by "government", that had nothing to do with him.

We now know that wasn't the whole truth. As the Mail & Guardian reported last week, he was briefed in detail by the minister of public works on the progress of the build, and the government appears to be sharing the cost of works that are squarely within the "private" domain the president is so anxious to protect from scrutiny. In his response to parliamentary questions Zuma seemed particularly ­anxious to defend himself and his family from what he styles as an invasion of his privacy.

This week we report on the financing arrangements surrounding the ­purchase of a R5.2-million house for one of his wives, Bongi Ngema-Zuma, and their young son. No doubt Zuma will once again stand on his dignity and complain about the intrusion into his personal affairs.

The fact is that some of the president's private arrangements demand public scrutiny, because they pose real risks for him and for crucial areas of governance. This conclusion emerges inescapably from the circumstances we are now able to detail.

The purchase of the Waterkloof home was partially funded by a bond from the Bank of Baroda, an Indian bank that does business with the Gupta family, which controls large mining and IT businesses, as well as the New Age newspaper, and which are close friends and supporters of Zuma.

Alternative explanation
But that is not all. The bond documents were witnessed by a senior Gupta employee, Ronica Govender. And the monthly statement of account is sent to Govender, not to Bongi Ngema-Zuma.

All this is strongly suggestive of involvement by the Guptas and their businesses in the payment of the bond. If there is an alternative explanation, it has not been forthcoming either from them or the presidency.

It is difficult to understand how the presidential couple could afford monthly repayments of some R80 000 without assistance. Even if they were able to make such payments, it is crucial to point out that Ngema-Zuma derives her income from a job as a marketing manager with the Gupta-controlled mining firm JIC. In other words, the president's wife and young son depend heavily on the continued goodwill of the family. So does Zuma's older son, Duduzane. The house he says he lives in is also bonded by the Bank of Baroda, and it is owned by a company he shares with Tony Gupta.

This indicates an extraordinary degree of dependence by the president's nearest and dearest on one family, a family that operates in state-regulated industries such as mining and information technology, and that has shown willingness to parlay access to political figures into political opportunity.

Zuma himself has considerable form in this area. As we learned during the Schabir Shaik trial, his dependence on private donors to support his lifestyle left him vulnerable to bribe attempts that resulted in the bringing of ­corruption charges (later controversially dropped) against him.

In the face of telling evidence, which blustering denials cannot wish away, we need real answers from Zuma before we are convinced he isn't trading the credibility of the South African state for a home in the hills of Pretoria.

Keep the powerful accountable

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