South Africa’s public ombudsman ruled Wednesday that some of the $23 million taxpayer-funded improvements to President Jacob Zuma’s luxurious private residence were excessive and unlawful.
In a scathing report issued just weeks ahead of South Africa’s elections, ombudsman Thuli Madonsela also ordered Zuma to repay part of the costs of the upgrades at his village homestead.
“Some of these measures can be legitimately classified as unlawful and the acts involved constitute improper conduct and maladministration,” Madonsela said.
The long-awaited report, titled “Secure in Comfort” — which also implicated several ministers — found that Zuma violated the executive ethics code by failing to protect state resources and that there was “excessive” spending.
Madonsela blamed the government for the two years it took to produce the report, saying Zuma had taken nine months to respond to her questions.
“There is nothing political about the report, all I have done as the ombudsman is to discharge my responsibility. And I have done that.”
The opposition Democratic Alliance said that in light of the “damning findings” it would urgently initiate impeachment proceedings against Zuma.
The ombudsman ordered Zuma to pay a “reasonable percentage” of the cost of renovations not related to security at the sprawling homestead in the southern village of Nklanda.
However the exact amount was not disclosed and Madonsela said it would be up to the Treasury to determine a figure.
In a terse statement, Zuma said he would study the findings and “will communicate his response in due course”.
Renovations at so-called “Zumaville” cost taxpayers 246 million rand ($23 million) in a project touted as a security upgrade but which included a visitors’ centre, swimming pool, an amphitheatre, private clinic and even a chicken coop.
“The expenditure incurred by the state… went beyond what was reasonably required for the president’s security, was unconsciously excessive and caused a misappropriation of funds,” the report said.
– Opulence on a grand scale –
Madonsela also ordered Zuma to “reprimand the ministers involved for the appalling manner in which the Nkandla project was handled and state funds were abused”.
Zuma is running for re-election in the May 7 vote but his popularity has taking a beating and he was booed at the memorial for South Africa’s first black president Nelson Mandela in December.
The vote promises to be the toughest yet for Zuma and his ruling African National Congress (ANC) which has won every election since the end of apartheid in 1994 by a landslide.
A survey late last year showed that support for the ANC had dropped to 53 percent, a slide of 10 percentage points from a year earlier.
The splurge on the house – nestled in the verdant hills of Zuma’s political stronghold — has caused anger in a country where there is widespread poverty and where 10 million people live on welfare.
In contrast to Zuma’s luxury lifestyle, some of his rural neighbours are without electricity or running water. Nearby residents collect water from communal taps and streams which often run dry.
The ombudsman said the allegation by a complainant that the Nkandla project constitutes “opulence on a grand scale is substantiated.”
It “leaves one with the impression of excessive and unconscionable ‘Rolls Royce’ security constituting an island in a sea of poverty and paucity of public infrastructure.”
“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,” said Madonsela
The home, which Zuma rarely visits as he has official residences in Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban — also boasts its own helipad.
Madonsela said the upgrades were by far the most expensive for a sitting head of state, including Mandela.
Zuma last year denied that he and his family had benefitted from the security upgrades.
But Madonsela said “this is not true” and that Zuma had “unduly benefited from the enormous capital investment from non-security measures”.
While presidents and former leaders were legally entitled to reasonable security upgrades, Madonsela said such additions as a swimming pool did not meet the criteria.