Starting in 2009 a veritable army of civil servants broke the rules or looked away as President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla home was upgraded. Their bosses did the same, with a bit of dissembling and the occasional flat-out lie thrown in.
The president and his family benefitted greatly, while the Parliament – tasked with overseeing him, the civil servants and their bosses – did little but dole out healthy helpings of whitewash ever so often.
But come 2018, architect Minenhle Makhanya will stand alone on Nkandla, the last person who can be made to pay.
Makhanya may rightfully feel aggrieved at that point.
Three cabinet ministers failed in their duties when it came to Nkandla. Last year those leaders suffered a written reprimand from President Jacob Zuma which, at its most savage, read: “I hereby deliver the reprimand required.”
As for Zuma himself, after years of fighting even the suggestion that he benefitted from massive state spending at his compound (with taxpayers funding his legal bills) he last year paid R7.8-million back to the state. A calculation based on an investigation by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) suggests that repayment was small compared to the R51.5-million in benefits the Zuma family derived.
Other than Makhanya, that just left the civil servants who had an active hand in channeling those millions into Nkandla, breaking many prescripts on public finance along the way.
Each and every one of them implicated in any kind of wrongdoing should face immediate disciplinary action, decreed a 2013 government task team report on Nkandla harshly — while finding Zuma himself ignorant and innocent.
But regard should be had to evidence that the civil servants were bullied and cowed on Nkandla, then public protector Thuli Madonsela found later, and consideration given to the “why” before disciplinary action is launched.
A 2014 report of the SIU gave some indication as to why civil servants suddenly forgot how to do their jobs: several government employees had complained of threats and intimidation. As one later confided, “it was made clear that there were consequences if we failed to keep the President safe, and jail was just the start”.
The SIU nonetheless held that letting wrongdoers cry intimidation after the fact could not let them off the hook, not without a proper investigation. So it also prepared 12 “disciplinary dockets” for the department of public works, detailing the ways in which the individuals apparently failed to comply with their duties.
Last week, all those cases went away.
That much, at least, both the public works department and the union that represented the group of civil servants have confirmed. In their words the matter “has been settled” and “agreement has been reached”. On the nature of that agreement neither will say anything beyond that it is strictly confidential.
Quoting anonymous sources, the Sunday Tribune this weekend reported that the officials will face unpaid suspensions of between one and two months each, with their lost pay deducted over a longer period to soften the blow.
For employees who protested their innocence, the loss of up to one-sixth their annual income seems a bitter pill to swallow. Then again, a department that suffered losses of both money and reputation may, in turn, consider the punishment paltry.
Why each (or either) would swallow the settlement iis a mystery.
As of April this year the two sides were still locked in furious battle, slinging claims of nasty tactics to and fro. Then both sides started to find it increasingly hard to provide updates on the proceedings, or timelines on upcoming hearings. Five months later, a sudden outbreak of peace was officially confirmed.
So the ministers have been reprimanded, the President has repaid a fraction of his gains, and the civil servants have paid with docked salaries for sins they may, or may not, have admitted to as part of a confidential settlement.
It must, then, all be the fault of the architect.
In the same process that saw it assemble the now-settled disciplinary dockets, the SIU also compiled a civil claim against Makhanya for R155-million. Makhanya was originally appointed by Zuma as his private architect for improvements the family was to fund.
But he had ended up as an implementing agent for the state, the SIU said. As such he had been responsible for the overspending on Nkandla, and that money could, and should, be clawed back from him. Even if, thanks to a percentage-based contract, Makhanya had actually earned a comparatively paltry R16.5-million for his work.
The date for a hearing on the matter has not yet been set, but preliminaries are expected to be dispensed with early next year. Both the state and Makhanya have promised to fight the claim fiercely. But then, so did both a group of civil servants and their employer department, not all that long ago.