Zumaville ‘project is still on’

The R1-billion plan to build a new town just 3.2 kilometres away from President Jacob Zuma's homestead in rural KwaZulu-Natal is showing cracks amid the continued fallout around government spending in the area – but the man behind the concept says things are on track.

"All I can say is the project is still on," Deebo Mzobe, head of the Masibambisane Rural Development Initiative told the Mail & Guardian on Sunday. "We’re still talking to different investors."

Not everyone agrees.

"There’s just too much controversy around Nkandla and too much interference,” the Sunday Tribune quoted Keith Warmback of the company Rural Smart Cities as saying on Sunday. "The project turned out not to be what we had in mind."

Rural Smart Cities had intended to build a shopping centre within sight of the Zuma family compound in rural KwaZulu-Natal, a centre that would have been a lynchpin of a development that, according to concept documents, would include office blocks, small factory units, agricultural processing facilities, 137 new housing units and a 24-classroom school.

Officially dubbed the Umlalazi-Nkandla Smart Growth Centre, the development would cost an estimated R500-million in government funding, with another R500-million from private investors required to make it feasible.

The project is a concept of Mzobe’s Masibambisane, which works closely with Zuma himself, but has been substantially funded by the department of rural development, which has set aside R5-million for planning and management on top of budgets for fencing, a computer centre and other individual projects that may eventually form part of the broader Zumaville development.

Various other government departments have also been approached, and during tender meetings town planners were told the initiative was "driven by the president of South Africa".

Accused of spending an excessive amount of money in his home region, Zuma and the presidency have countered that Nkandla was one of the least developed parts of the country, and that similar rural areas in other provinces had similar projects under consideration.

White elephant
But several companies and individuals have privately expressed reservations about becoming involved in the project, fearing they could become engulfed in controversy centred on Zuma’s Nkandla homestead and the R215-million in government money spent upgrading it.

"You are looking at viability, and if that isn’t there you want to know there is political will behind subsidies," said one developer speaking on condition of anonymity citing future government tenders. "You know there is political will [on Nkandla], but you also know it could disappear if the politics get too hot. Then you have this white elephant sitting out in the veld."

Rural Smart Cities is the first named potential partner to publicly pull out, and to indicate that public disapproval could have played a role in its decision. However, the company also appears to have had reservations about the numbers.

“We were only going to get involved if it made financial sense,” the Sunday Tribune quoted the company's Warmback as saying. "From what we've seen it doesn't."

But Mzobe dismissed the company's move, saying there were many interested parties, although he declined to name any.

"We are still talking to different investors," Mzobe said. "I know a couple of investors who are showing interest. I don’t know what basis these guys [Rural Smart Cities] have for saying they are pulling out. I didn’t know that they were in."

Involvement in the project
Several Chinese organisations are known to have considered involvement in the project.

Mzobe said the project had reached an agreement with the community on the location of graveyards in the area and was not "engaging on different options" around those graveyards.

The Zumaville plan calls for limited relocations of homesteads on the proposed site, although most of the settlements would remain in place and development would encircle them, concept documents show.

It was not just current homesteads that needed to be considered, said Mzobe.

"Africans, when you talk about graveyards, you will see open land,you will think there is no grave there. Then you go back in history and they will tell you that 80 years ago, 100 years ago, there was a family residing on this piece of land, but they moved to other side of the mountain for some reason. You have to take that into account."

Mzobe would not be drawn on target date for the project and its various components.

Rural Smart Cities and Warmback could not immediately be reached for comment.

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Phillip De Wet
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