What exactly was making Nhleko sweat when he released his report on Nkandla is open to conjecture.
It was, evidently, hot under the glare of public scrutiny. In the first hour of his presentation, Police Minister Nathi Nhleko wiped his face 31 times.
Sometimes it was just his brow, sometimes small wipes to the right of his neck, or to his left cheek. Occasionally he would go for heroic mops of his entire face, pausing ever so slightly in his delivery. It was complemented by the tiny sips of water familiar to anyone who has ever been struck by the peculiar dry mouth syndrome produced by anxiety. Nhleko was not having a good time. Perhaps he was struck by prescience, aware that his Report by the Minister of Police to Parliament on Security Upgrades at the Nkandla Private Residence of the President would make him a laughing stock before that Thursday in late May 2015 was out.
Or perhaps he realised that misleading Parliament was not something to be done lightly, even if his boss had already got away with it.
A little more than a year before, in March 2014, public protector Thuli Madonsela’s report on Nkandla had found that Zuma could have been “legitimately construed as misleading Parliament” when he said state spending on his homestead had not benefited him or his family. But she also found that Zuma appeared to have made a bona fide mistake.
Nhleko was upping the stakes. After years of lies, untruths, misstatements and misapprehensions by government officials on Nkandla, he was trying something new: making things up.
To be sure, he played the old favourites, and ignored what was inconvenient to his thesis – that everything government money paid for at Nkandla was necessary for security. And he obscured anything that gainsaid his recommendation – that Zuma should repay the state the sum of zero for benefits he had not derived – in complexity.
But he also invented things, until his 50-page report seemed to be a product of wishful thinking rather than the “inescapable” logical conclusion of a professional process Nhleko insisted it had been.
“This is one report that I do not have a problem with it,” he told dubious journalists. “I mean, if it has got to be scrutinised, let it be scrutinised.”
Scrutiny was hardly required.
He was tasked by Zuma to determine how much money Zuma owed the public purse for the Nkandla improvements. This would satisfy the requirements of both the public protector and an ad hoc committee of Parliament that a costing exercise should be done (although Madonsela had directed Zuma to work with the treasury to arrive at a figure).
The Nkandla story
Four pages into his document, Nhleko stumbled. The Nkandla story, he said, had “dominated public discourse since November 2011 when the matter first appeared in the Mail & Guardian“.
He was right about the publication, but wrong about the date – the first article appeared in December 2009.
Five pages later, he presented a table that baldly declares that Madonsela found “no public funds was [sic] used to build the president’s house(s)”.
In a statement the next day, Madonsela disagreed. “This,” her office said, “could not be further from the truth.”
Perhaps the misunderstanding came about because Nhleko was working off an illegible version of her report. In between those two errors, he provides page and paragraph references to the public protector’s report, which he says defines what Madonsela considered “non-security” items at Nkandla. In fact, the paragraphs he references deal with allegations that the president’s brother improperly benefited from state spending (for which Madonsela found no evidence) and with the relocation of Nkandla’s tuck shop (with which she did not have a problem).
A particularly poor reproduction of her report may also explain how Nhleko missed other elements of the her findings. His report to Parliament, the police minister repeated over and over again, dealt only with four “non-security comforts” that Madonsela had found the state had built for Zuma: an amphitheatre, a cattle kraal, a visitors’ centre and the infamous fire pool.
He missed the fact that she had also expressed reservations about the private medical clinic built for the Zuma family, and expensive paving and landscaping.
A similarly poor reproduction of the August 2014 Special Investigating Unit report into Nkandla could explain how Nhleko could have come to think that the SIU had not dealt at all with the matter of public money being used to build the president a home.
The SIU did not recommend that Zuma should repay any money but went after his contractors, and specifically Zuma’s architect, Minenhle Makhanya. The claims against Makhanya for extra work he had tagged on to security improvements at Nkandla, the SIU said, had only one logical conclusion. “It is … implicit from the claims based on the increase in the scope of works that the value of the president’s, or the Zuma family’s, residential complex was enhanced. Clearly, to the extent that these claims are well founded, the president or his family were enriched.”
On the other hand, poor photocopies would not explain how the police minister came to make up a quote, and an entire new hierarchy of world wide web addresses.
“According to Wikipedia, and I quote, ‘the walls of the amphitheatre are normally constructed in stepping dwarf walls’?” is how Nhleko started his explanation of why an amphitheatre was a must for security.
Dubious as Wikipedia can be as an authority, the end of the quote may have bolstered his case, pointing out that “the theatre would normally have electrical points to provide for entertainment or sound system in an appropriate stage”.
But the quote does not exist, and certainly not at the web address cited in his report, www.wikipedia/amphitheatredefinition.com, which is not a valid web address. The quotation now only appears online elsewhere – in reports on Nhleko’s report.
The same peculiarity crops up elsewhere in Nhleko’s analysis of the amphitheatre, which he explains is actually a retaining wall. “Retaining walls prevent soil and substrate from moving because of erosion or gravitational pull,” his report states, listing another invalid web address, http:www.soilretentionmethods.za.
The exact phrasing could be found on only one website: cinderblock.com, an online product catalogue for a company based in Baltimore in the United States. The company does not present itself as an expert on the difference between security features and entertainment areas. “We don’t do the design, we just manufacture the blocks,” its salesperson for landscape products, Ken Sperber, said.
Buy the e-book Nkandla: The Great Unravelling by Phillip de Wet on Amazon.