Nkandla: Ministers and Madonsela agree – mostly

One report says President Jacob Zuma was entirely correct when he told Parliament the government had not built houses for his family – or so say the members of a parliamentary committee who have seen the top secret document, and the Cabinet ministers briefed on it. Nobody else is allowed to see the report, although a report on the report is easily available after being published by Parliament's joint standing committee on intelligence (JSCI) in mid-November.

There is "no evidence that the department of public works had paid for the construction of houses for the president", Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said less than two weeks ago, while speaking on behalf of Cabinet and citing that JSCI report.

Another report says R7.9-million was spent building homes for Zuma relatives, and that Zuma himself is liable for other expenses incurred by the government – or so say sources that have seen the draft version of the report by the public protector. That report is not yet public (and may never become fully public if security ministers have their way), but the Mail & Guardian on Friday reported on it, by way of sources with direct access to the report.

Public protector Thuli Madonsela had recommended that Parliament call Zuma to account, the M&G reported, "for violating the executive code of ethics on two counts: failing to protect state resources, and misleading Parliament for suggesting he and his family had paid for all structures unrelated to security".

Going by the differing interpretations, it would be hard to imagine two more different documents. And yet, bizarrely, the two reports appear to agree on just about every detail of the construction project at Nkandla, and even a great deal of interpretation.

Fundamental differences in approach
Among the points of agreement between two reports (at least according to reports on the reports), are that a government security project, funded from the public purse, came to include:

  • the construction of new residences for members of the extended Zuma family;
  • the construction of a large amphitheatre;
  • the construction of a cattle kraal, a chicken coop, and a special culvert for cattle.

The reports even agree that various laws and regulations effectively allow for an unlimited amount of money to be spent on security measures at the private home of the president.

How then could the ultimate conclusions be so vastly different? The scanty available information strongly suggests it was due to fundamental differences in approach. The public protector and those responsible for the JSCI report punted by Cabinet had access to the same documents, and seem to have drawn testimony from many of the same individuals. But one set of investigators examined that information in terms of a common or garden understanding of what constitutes security – while the other defined security extraordinarily broadly, stretched a couple of other definitions, and downright ignored salient facts.

Madonsela's team, it appears, saw the president's private amphitheatre as, well, a private amphitheatre. A team of experts drawn from government departments and security services saw it differently.

"The retaining wall, also referred to as the amphitheatre, is a special feature meant for ground protection," the JSCI said in its report on the report on security features at Nkandla. "It is constructed in front of the [South African Police Service] control facility in order to retain the sloped earth bank."

The fact that the resulting structure could be used for performances is ignored, but the committee noted that the design gives "more structural stability against the earth".

Cattle culvert, chicken coop 
The treatment of the presidential livestock by the JSCI is somewhat more complicated. A cattle culvert through which the Zuma cattle are walked daily en route to grazing fields, the JSCI report explains, was necessary "as the cattle and people were using the same entrance". This is "a potential security risk". An estimate by the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism puts the cost of mitigating that security threat at R1.2-million.

The chicken coop, in turn, was required because trespassers (having gained access by some method other than hiding behind cattle) can hide behind, or perhaps inside, cages.

The new coop, the JSCI report found "was created as a replacement to a number of building block structures that were scattered around some of the main dwellings, which were obstructions and potential hiding areas for intruders".

What appears to have been a significant upgrade of the cattle kraal itself is not mentioned in the JSCI report at all, nor is a swimming pool, although there is a passing reference to a fire-fighting "water reservoir".

It is the matter of new houses that is most likely to continue the controversy around Nkandla, and which is fuelling calls for Zuma to be censured. It is also there that the JSCI's interpretation, and the subsequent re-interpretation by Cabinet, appears strained.

Listing the reasons why security measures at Nkandla were so expensive, the JSCI notes that "relocation of households that were within the security area required additional construction of replacement houses".

Improper benefit to Zuma
A critical detail is missing from that statement. According to the public protector, those "households", which had been intermingled with the residences of Zuma's immediate family, are also relatives. According to the draft public protector report, that constitutes an improper benefit to Zuma.

But that may depend on whose lawyer is defining "of", "for", and "family".

"The committee noted that the [investigating government] task team found that there was no evidence that the department of public works paid for the construction of the private houses of the president," said the JSCI.

Seen narrowly – and in the legal fashion it would be analysed by a court – that statement may not contradict the admission that private residences were built for people who happen to be members of the extended Zuma family. Nor, for that matter, would the ever-so-slightly broader language used by Cabinet, of "houses for the president", or the (in retrospect carefully phrased) statement Zuma made to Parliament, that "all the buildings and every room we use in that residence was built by ourselves".

The houses built with public money, after all, fall outside the fence of the presidential Nkandla compound.

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