The moveable palace: Zuma and his great Nkandla dodge

Zuma’s Inkandla residence

Zuma’s Inkandla residence

Richard Poplak
The money is to be #PaidBack. Is this President Jacob Zuma meeting the terms of the Public Protector’s Nkandla report, or is this just a political ploy meant to run interference on a major loss of ANC electoral momentum?

In high literary circles, the story is a famous one. The year was 1787, and as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge paged his way through a fortuitous copy of a text called Purchas his Pilgrimage, he came across a sentence that read, “In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately palace…a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be removed from place to place.” Suffering from the usual writerly infirmities, Coleridge drowned his ailments in laudanum-a mixture of opium and alcohol, which served as the period’s purple drank. As he snoozed through his drool-soaked hypnogic stupor, the poet dreamed of Xamdu (or, rather, Xanadu), a city he would immortalise in an epic verse entitled Kubla Khan Or, A Vision in a Dream.

Now, here’s where things get really interesting: as Jorge Luis Borges would much later note, Kublai Khan’s palace, imagined so vividly by Coleridge on his poppy trip, was according to Rashid al-Din Tabib’s The Compendium of Chronicles, “[built] according to a plan he had seen in a dream and kept in his memory.”

Coleridge’s Xanadu, it turns out, was a dream of a dream.

The point of this story? Every great leader’s imperial palace is a spectral folly, one that starts off as a pile of bricks and ends up as a tourist trap. Hitler, whose taste in most things tended toward the extreme, termed this phenomenon ruinenwert, or “ruin value”. The giants of history, his thinking went, built not for themselves, but for future cruise boat guests and their selfie sticks.

Which, I suppose, brings us to Nkandla, President Jacob Zuma’s miserable pile of already rotting thatch smeared across a National Strategic Point in his home province of KZN. When an ad hoc parliamentary committee visited the joint last July, followed shortly by a restricted media tour, they found a pre-ruin, a badly constructed pile crumbling not from a surfeit of unreachable ambition, but from a lack of anyone involved giving a f**k. This wasn’t Timur’s gilded Samarkand or Justinian’s Hagia Sophia (which he too first encountered in a dream), but a stopover motel for sycophants and their rent-a-thugs wearing wraparound Ray Bans.

This is what R246 million buys you these days.

Nkandla was just another means to siphon state funds into the bank accounts of favoured patrons; the palace wasn’t the grand folly of a leader who hoped for his crimes to be misremembered as greatness, but the home of leader who hoped to be forgotten to enjoy the spoils of his crimes. Nkandla’s cost was quoted with outrage by the president’s opponents, but the number barely represented a budgetary rounding error—even as an act of larceny, Nkandla was pathetic. Zuma’s crib, regardless of its miserly vision and its relatively low sticker price, was always more powerful as a symbol—it reminded us that post-apartheid South Africa was kleptocracy built on the ruins of a kleptocracy, a fact perfectly expressed by an architectural botch-job replete with remote-controlled chicken pens and a fire-pool.

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As a political cudgel, however, Nkandla has proved remarkably useful. When the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela read out her 443-page report, entitled “Secure in Comfort”, to a roomful of sweaty journalists back in March 2014, when she unfurled the astonishing recommendation that the president was to pay back a portion of the security upgrade funds from which he and his family had likely benefitted, it was obvious that the ANC had an intractable problem on their hands. Acknowledge the terms of the report, and in the act of paying back the money Zuma was confirmed a thief in the eyes of his jaundiced public. Refuse to pay back the money, and the president exposed a chink that could be relentlessly exploited by his enemies.

Zuma and his advisors conspired to choose the latter, and in purely political terms, it was the better option. It did, however, make for some outrageous political theatre. During a baby-hugging whistlestop in a Sasolburg township, I watched Zuma quiz a couple about the recent renovations they’d made to their tiny house. The husband kept looking over at the assembled journalists for some acknowledgment that this was, objectively, the single greatest act of chutzpah perpetrated in South African history. We could be of no help: South Africa is where chutzpah came to die.

While there is no political science to confirm this observation, it did seem like Nkandla repulsed a small number of the voting public already turned off by innumerable scandals, although their numbers were not enough to swing parliament from the ANC’s grasp. But politics is a funny game, and so Zuma Inc. was punched in the face by a situation they had failed to war game. The #PayBackTheMoney campaign, inaugurated by Julius Malema’s nascent Economic Freedom Fighters, was employed to jam up parliamentary procedure, nudging the country ever closer towards a constitutional crisis. “We want to know,” said Malema, interrupting the president from droning out last year’s State of the Nation Address, “when will you pay back the money.” Enter Zuma’s hastily assembled Republican Guard, wearing PEP slacks and button-ups, and the vaunted house was thrown into chaos. Dozens of stalling tactics were brought to bear, but just as the theatrics were about to pass their best-buy date, Malema told Zuma that he’d see him court .

And so we hurtled toward February 9, 2016, when the Nkandla case was to face a preliminary hearing on top of Constitution Hill.

What’s a palace owner to do? Zuma and his legal advisors decided to blink, sort of. In what had recently become the presidency’s policy, Zuma’s office released a statement long after dinner on Tuesday night. In effect, the press release promised that Zuma would pay back the money—with the odd caveat, of course. First, an independent something-or-other would be established in order to determine how much $ were to paid back, and when. Also, the presidency had problems with a whole bunch of the Public Protector’s findings. But yeah, generally speaking, when all things are said and done, all things being equal, and when the Zika virus flap has calmed down, the cheque is in the mail.

#HowMuchMoney? #When? #? Hashtags of the near future.

I think we all get it: this is nothing more than a political move, made in order to kibosh an EFF march at Constitution Hill, and to avoid the embarrassment of a legal pounding at the nation’s highest court. It was designed to forestall the inevitable opposition to the president’s SONA address, scheduled for 11 February. It’s a short term dodge on what had devolved into a long term problem.

And it will work. Superbly.

How well does Zuma ken the classics? Sometimes, I wonder. According to the literature, old Kublai Khan’s palace had an astonishing feature. Wrote Purchis:

The house itself may be sundred, and taken downe like a Tent and erected again. For it is sustained, when it is set up, with two hundred silken cords.

Kublai Khan’s pile, in all its vastness, was moveable. It could not be captured, it could not be pinned down by enemy fire. The dude, as Coleridge no doubt grocked in his proto-purple drank inspired dreamscape, was canny as all hell.

So it is with Zuma and Nkandla. Good luck nailing a joint that refuses to be nailed down. – Daily Maverick

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