Ministers trip themselves up over Nkandla

The security cluster ministers seemed to have a well-defined set of points they wanted to put across in Pretoria on Thursday:

  • The government did not build President Jacob Zuma a home;
  • They had only been doing the job given to them when they challenged public protector Thuli Madonsela in court;
  • It is time to stop publishing pictures of the Zuma's Nkandla homestead; and
  • The important number when it comes to Nkandla's security upgrade is R71-million, not R208-million.

But in a post-Cabinet briefing that at times bordered on the farcical, the ministers raised more questions about Nkandla than they answered.

Although the Cabinet meeting that formed the basis of the briefing included a laundry list of items that were discussed – from the performance of sports teams to the disaster in the Philippines – the ministers of police, defence and state security were all rolled out to answer questions on just one point at the end of the discussion list – Nkandla and the challenge those ministers had launched to demand the right to vet the public protector's report on government spending on the homestead.

But things rapidly went off the rails, with confusion about timelines and photographs.

The Nkandla residence was declared a national key point in 2010, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa patiently explained. "What then happened, the state committed itself, its funds, on the security detail of the president's residence."

But it is well documented that public spending at Nkandla started well before 2010, and that millions of rands had been spent on it in the previous financial year.

There is also no indication that the money for the security upgrades was drawn from a special account linked to the national key points, or that the spirit of the Act, which encourages the state to make owners pay for required security spending, was followed.

Asked about the discrepancy, Mthethwa said an assessment of threats relating to Zuma had been done well before he assumed national office, but questions were brought to a close before he could be asked for further clarification.

The briefing also featured State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, who explained that the state held a lease on the state land on which housing for security staff was built, then he corrected himself to say that the land was actually owned by the Ingonyama Trust, and then said that land owned by the trust is actually state land.

In fact, Ingonyama acts as a trust on behalf of the Zulu people.

Mthethwa also struggled to explain an apparently new approach to photographs of Nkandla.

Publishing them is illegal, he said, as it could compromise security.

Asked whether those breaking the law would be prosecuted, he said the government was "asking nicely" that such photographs not be shared.

But the briefing ended before he could be asked whether the media would be prosecuted for having previously published photographs of Nkandla or whether the request was linked to sensitivity about the possible political ramifications with elections being so close.

Mthethwa's greatest gaffe, however, must have been his invocation of the Nazi propaganda machine as an analogy for those who, he said, continue to perpetuate the idea that the government built the houses at Zuma's homestead.

"Those who do so follow the example of [Joseph] Goebbels, propagandist of Hitler," he said with a straight face.Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said government was  "asking nicely" that photographs of Nkandla should not be shared

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Phillip De Wet
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