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Why Madonsela didn’t hammer Zuma in her Nkandla report

Public protector Thuli Madonsela has trodden a fine line remarkably well.

She ran the risk on Wednesday of falling into two extremes in her investigation into security upgrades at President Jacob Zuma's personal residence in Nkandla.

She could have delivered a slap-down to everyone's least favourite ANC president: holding him responsible for every error, big and small, in the mammoth project where so much went wrong.

Or she could have succumbed to the more than considerable political pressure senior government figures applied to her office and watered down her findings, exonerating Zuma.

She did neither.

Instead, Madonsela, everyone's favourite public protector, has made the report about what matters: institutions.

An attack on Zuma, as his many critics salivated for, would have done little more than put the ruling party's back up.

A fed up president is more likely to harden his attitude and refuse to acknowledge any wrong-doing.

A president who is legitimately allowed to save face would be more willing to take Madonsela's corrective measures on board. Guess which one is better for our democracy?

This way, Madonsela wins the long game: she helps prevent the monstrosity that is Nkandla from happening again.

A scathing attack on Zuma would not have achieved that.

Madonsela's report is remarkably free of the tongue-lashings that were expected. Her most scathing remark was that "the manner in which the Nkandla Project was administered and implemented gave me the impression of a toxic concoction of a lack of leadership, a lack of control and focused self-interest".

But beyond that, she focused on what went wrong and, most importantly, how we can prevent it from happening again.

She didn't shy away from telling it like it is, ruling that Zuma benefitted improperly from the upgrades, which went beyond security measures in many instances, and that he has to pay back a percentage of the costs for some of the more ridiculous items. This includes the swimming pool, chicken run, cattle kraal, visitor's centre and amphitheatre.

Other than that, she was remarkably even-handed.

Examples of Madonsela's generosity towards Zuma includes letting him off the hook on the complaint that he misled Parliament by saying his family paid for the buildings in Nkandla, not the state. Zuma forgot to mention the visitor's centre, also a building but paid for by the state.

"I have accepted the evidence that he addressed Parliament in good faith and was not thinking about the visitor's centre but his family dwellings when he made the statement,"

She also avoided a "strict legal approach" in holding Zuma to the National Key Points Act. His residence was hurriedly declared one midway through the Nkandla upgrades, and a critic could have stuck it to Zuma's team that this meant he was obliged to pay for the security upgrades out of his own pocket.

Madonsela acknowledged she could have gone down that route but said it would not be fair, as Zuma was only made aware of the declaration a year after it was made, and was entitled to reasonable security upgrades at state expense as a president under the Cabinet policy of 2003.

Instead, she let her soft-spoken wrath fall on the myriad things that went wrong that could have been prevented. Dozens of people, departments and processes were found to have been responsible for improper conduct and maladministration. Procurement policies were routinely flouted and the costs of the project sky-rocketed as all normal processes were ignored in the scramble to please a president.

Madonsela could have made her report about a president corrupt enough to make something like Nkandla happen. Instead she focused on a system not robust enough to stop a corrupt president.

She has asked for action from various government figures to fix gaps in regulations that let the cost of this upgrade spiral so hopelessly out of control.

The secretary in Cabinet, Dr Cassius Lubisi, has been instructed to update the Cabinet policy of 2003 "to provide for a more detailed regime".

Madonsela also called for clear standards on reasonable costs and conditions for security upgrades for future presidents and deputy presidents, who have something of a free rein at present, even after they retire.

Madonsela was particularly concerned about this aspect in a running theme of her report: how was this allowed to happen?

Perhaps the most damning statement is directed towards Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, who she has determined needs help from his police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, to understand his responsibilities better. Read: he needs to learn how to do his job.

If only everyone could do theirs like Madonsela: thoroughly, diligently and with enough smarts to not succumb to the pressures of the moment but keep an eye on the long goal. We'd be a better country for it.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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