Inside President Zuma's cow-a-bunker

Some of President Jacob Zuma's herd of cattle cross the road at his homestead, Nkandla. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Some of President Jacob Zuma's herd of cattle cross the road at his homestead, Nkandla. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

They spend the night safely ensconced behind multiple layers of high-tech security, and incidentally also safe from the prying eyes of passing gawkers who stop cars and buses on the nearby road for quick cellphone photographs of the now infamous presidential compound at Nkandla.

But just after 8am, as the sun starts to burn the early morning winter chill off the grass, President Jacob Zuma's cattle are led through a gate in a specially constructed underpass out of the main security zone, past the neat vegetable garden, up a paved security road, through an outer perimeter fence, past the newly constructed quarters for security personnel, and up the hill to their grazing grounds.

And as they pass over a public road in single file, you can inspect the herd that sleeps safely – and in apparent luxury – thanks to more than R1-million in tax money spent on their quarters (that is, their living – not hind – quarters).

As of late 2009, Zuma's cattle were kept like those of his neighbours: somewhat informally. But after he took the highest office in the land, a team of state officials determined that, along with a helipad, fire protection and bulletproof glass, the president's rural residence needed a "revamped" cattle kraal – for security reasons.

Though the final cost of the kraal is not known, documents released to the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism, ama-Bhungane, show a contractor quote for R1-million to bring it up to the standard required for a "prestige project", and that officials were loath in the extreme to make the president himself pay for it.

That would make the kraal worth double the value of the cattle kept in it. Though in good condition, the largely mature 115-head mixed herd, of Nguni and other breeds more suited for commercial beef farming, is worth about R500 000.

Value of the herd
That is substantial, especially in an area where much smaller family herds predominate, but the difference between the cost of the kraal and the value of the herd is enough to make experts choke.

"Sjoe, that's a lot of money to spend on just a kraal," said the head of a cattle-breeding association, who asked not be named for fear of political reprisal. "If you told me that was the cost of fencing a whole grazing area and laying water, yes. A million bucks for something everyone else does with tree branches? I couldn't run my business that way. It sounds like a vanity kraal."

Over-engineered though it may be, the kraal is clearly working as advertised. Zuma's cattle, a resource he could traditionally tap as a source of lobola, are fit and healthy and show no signs of the various diseases and ailments that can accrue from sleeping rough, even in the relatively mild winters of inland KwaZulu-Natal.

Compared with other animals in the area, Zuma's herd positively glows with health.

A cursory examination of the well-fortified compound shows that not everything is working as optimally. Certainly not trash collection, or maintenance, or all of the expensive and expansive security systems.

Perimeter lights, installed as part of a series of upgrades worth well over R200-million, seem to be suffering from a faulty light sensor system, with the result that they briefly flicker off and on again every two minutes throughout the night.

The envy of the neighbourhood
The vegetable garden – which, according to documents, was partly funded by taxpayers to ensure a secure food supply – is only partially cultivated, with a yield that will very quickly fall short of providing a minimum calorie intake to a full complement of inhabitants should the compound be cut off from supplies for any length of time.

But in such an event, the mean time to starvation will be extended by the availability of packs of frozen sausage rolls, which a mounting rubbish pile just across the road from Nkandla's main entrance shows to be a firm favourite within the walls.

General maintenance, too, is clearly falling well behind schedule as final construction is still under way on at least two major buildings in the complex.

Weeds are merrily spreading between the paving stones of the security road between the inner and outer perimeter fences, and rubbish is piling up, especially in a section of temporary buildings erected (at state expense, at least partially) to house construction workers and contractors who have been involved in the costly upgrade. Among the detritus is the carcass of a light bakkie, thoroughly stripped of its valuable parts.

The presidential cattle and their accommodation, on the other hand, are the envy of the neighbourhood.

"You must understand we love our cattle," said a herder, keeping an eye over his own small collection grazing nearby. Cattle theft is hardly a big problem, he allowed, but it would be "nice to have those men with guns" to look after them after dark.

If security includes preventing embarrassment, such as presidential stock theft, then R1-million may have been well spent. "Nobody is going to steal those cattle," said the herder.

Zuma's spokesperson had not responded to a request for comment by the time of going to press.

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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