JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – South African President Jacob Zuma personally benefited from a $23-million state-paid “security” upgrade to his private residence in rural KwaZulu-Natal, according to South Africa’s public protector, an official with the duties of an ombudsman.
Her findings over a scandal known in South Africa as “Nkandla-gate” -- a reference to the name of Zuma's homestead – are highly damaging to the governing African National Congress with less than two months to an election.
The public protector, Thuli Madonsela, described the “security” upgrade as a “license to loot” in a report of more than 400 pages released Wednesday. Zuma has been under fire for months over government spending on his plush personal residence.
Madonsela said additions unrelated to security included construction of a swimming pool, a chicken enclosure, a visitor center, a cattle enclosure and an amphitheater. These additions were not mentioned in reports to the Cabinet on the security upgrade.
The protector accused Zuma of breaching the executive ethics code and of conduct inconsistent with his office. She also implicated government ministers in “maladministration.”
Zuma’s office released a statement Wednesday saying he “noted” the report which would be “an additional tool” in addressing allegations of maladministration over the Nkandla upgrade. Zuma earlier set up an investigation which last year cleared him of wrongdoing.
The scandal over the housing upgrade – and another over police shootings of dozens of miners in August 2012 – have damaged the ANC’s popularity as it faces an election marking 20 years since the advent of democracy in South Africa.
In January, opinion pollsters Ipsos suggested that the ANC’s support in the most highly populated and urbanized province of Gauteng could drop as low as 45.5%, a shocking figure for a party used to polling well over 60% nationally. Internal party polls also showed the party could poll less than 50% in Gauteng, City Press newspaper reported earlier this month.
Analysts expect the ANC will win the election, but are watching whether the party falls below the psychologically important 60% mark for the first time.
In recent months, Zuma has been booed on several occasions at public events, including the memorial service for the iconic Nelson Mandela in December. Last week, in the township of Bekkersdal south of Johannesburg, residents pelted ANC officials with stones as they tried to campaign in the lead-up to the May election, according to local media reports.
Madonsela said the report took two years, because “I don’t get the co-operation I need.” It took Zuma’s office nine months to respond to her request for information.
Zuma told parliament in 2012 that he built the house himself, borrowing money from the bank. Madonsela said she assumed Zuma was referring only to the house at the time and made the comments “in good faith.” She said she couldn’t conclude that he breached the executive ethics code on this score.
However she found he should have acted to curtail the runway expenditures when a news report about the scandal surfaced in 2009.
"His failure to act in protection of state resources constitutes a violation of paragraph 2 of the executive ethics code and accordingly amounts to conduct that is inconsistent with his office as a member of cabinet, as contemplated by Section 96 of the Constitution,” she said.
She called on him to pay back the money in consultation with the treasury.