Editorial: The giant scandal that Zuma owns

 How was a lifelong underground operative and politician able to afford his own multimillion-rand contribution to the project? And who, besides the president and his close relatives, ­benefited from the building of the mega-kraal at Nkandla?

These crucial questions have been all but forgotten in the necessary, but distracting, debate about why the department of public works report on the project was classified, and by whom.

The Mail & Guardian has today begun publishing a series of documents that begin to cast light on at least some of these questions. Reluctantly handed over by the department in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, the 12000 pages of material we have been examining are not a complete record, but they make some important things inescapably clear.

The first is that ultimate responsibility rests with the president.

The documents provided to us are thin on communication at the very highest levels, something we may be able to address through a court application for more information. What we have been able to obtain, however, demonstrates how an administrative culture of grovelling sycophancy has grown up around Zuma, and that this culture is responsible for ballooning costs, unjustified secrecy, and spending decisions that bear no relation to rationality or to the regulations surrounding presidential perks.

There is one person responsible for this Big-Man culture, and that is the man at its centre.

If the criminal justice system can be made to serve at his pleasure, after all, with acting bosses who survive on sufferance, what is it to reach into the public purse for the building of a country house?

The documents also establish beyond dispute that claims of a need for blanket secrecy cannot be sustained. On the contrary, officials’ insistence on secrecy in order to provide political cover for Zuma, rather than for reasons of security, emerges from the documents as an important contributing factor in the ruinous cost of the project. Secrecy meant less rigour in tendering for work, and a willingness to pay hush money to service providers that might otherwise have been held accountable for shoddy delivery.

Even the much criticised Protection of State Information Bill makes it ­axiomatic that classification cannot legally be carried out in order to spare the blushes of officials or politicians.

Some aspects of the Nkandla plans can justifiably be kept secret of course – alarm specifications, for example, or details of bulletproofing – but the vast array of material given to the M&G, albeit under legal duress, makes it clear how readily that information can be severed from the stuff that just plain looks bad.

The larger point is that none of this should ever have happened. Public works should have provided the limited contributions permitted in its regulations for the security of the complex. The rest should have been for Jacob Zuma’s private account.

He owns this gargantuan house, and he must own this scandal.

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