Cape Town - It was “the elephant in the room”. How much was President Jacob Zuma to pay for aspects of the work at his residence at Nkandla which were not strictly security related?
Had he even been told such work was to be carried out?
If not, did he ever become aware – while, say, ambling past the R2.8 million swimming pool and parking garage built at his private home – that opulent facilities beyond those specified by official security assessments and norms were being built?
Did he ever try to find out why a project that started from “humble beginnings”, in the words of a senior Public Works official, took on the proportions of “a full township establishment”?
Despite a two-year investigation, interviews with all the key role players and hundreds of pages of documentary evidence she finally, in the face of spirited resistance at times, extracted from the state, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has not been able to provide definitive answers to these critical questions.
Zuma has consistently denied, in public and in Parliament, that he knew these extravagances were being committed in his name.
Up until Wednesday evening, after the release of Madonsela’s report, the government, through Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, was insisting all the work done at Nkandla was to do with the president’s safety and that he had not involved himself in the details.
The ANC, while conceding the state had committed a semantic perversion in using the term “fire pool”, persisted with the line that the president could not have been expected to familiarise himself with the nitty gritty of what was being done on his behalf.
It did not explain why Zuma could not have rescued the party and the government from their embarrassing acceptance of the description of the swimming pool.
Between the evidence and the president stands one man, Zuma’s private architect, Minenhle Makhanya.
He became, according to Madonsela’s report, the go-between and de facto principal agent of the government in its implementation of the “security upgrades” at Nkandla after Zuma introduced him to the official government team.
Madonsela did not find this happened at Zuma’s behest.
But she said officials with the responsibility to control spending on the project bowed to the will of Makhanya, believing he was in constant touch with Zuma, and afraid that questioning him would be construed as defying the president.
In the face of this predicament, almost every official involved, with the notable exception of the Public Works Department’s top quantity surveyor, threw up their hands and allowed the scope and costs of the project to escalate without limit – from an initial estimate of R27m to R246m when all has been said and, obscenely, done.
“In his written submission, one of the ‘official’ project managers stated that Mr Makhanya became the de facto project manager and that it was difficult to exercise control over him, leading to a case of ‘the tail wagging the dog’,” Madonsela wrote in her report.
“It is not difficult to comprehend why government officials, particularly at a fairly low level of the food chain, would have difficulty controlling a consultant who was presented by and claims to speak with the president’s concurrence or authority.
“My opinion is that even a minister could have had difficulty countermanding Mr Makhanya,” Madonsela wrote.
While minutes of meetings show Makhanya was repeatedly given the task of getting Zuma’s approval for measures like the swimming pool and the landscaping, there is no documentary evidence, other than further minutes suggesting the president had agreed, to show he was properly kept in the loop.
The president, the architect, the ambassador and the president’s financial adviser – this is a familiar template.
When wedding guests of Zuma’s benefactors and friends, the Gupta family, took the astonishing liberty of landing at a South African military air base, in a breach of national security, the principal blame quickly settled on one man: chief of state protocol Vusi Koloane.
As in the case of Nkandla, an interministerial investigation was launched in the face of snowballing public indignation.
It concluded, in the words, again, of Radebe, that Koloane and senior SA Air Force official Christine Anderson had acted on their own, while giving the impression they were under instructions from “Number 1”.
Anderson has subsequently confirmed this referred to Zuma but, in the proceedings of a military board of inquiry, has argued Koloane told her Zuma had authorised the landing.
Radebe told Parliament the two were neither “fall guys” nor “scapegoats”, but “masters of this manipulation of process”.
Koloane, in an internal disciplinary process, pleaded guilty to charges including abusing state diplomatic channels by facilitating an illegal request for the aircraft carrying the Gupta wedding guests to land at the base, misrepresenting facts to facilitate the illegal landing and compromising the processes and procedures of the Department of International Relations and Co-Operation.
He was demoted and served with a final warning.
The board of inquiry has not yet finalised Anderson’s case, but the charges have been substantially revised since Radebe claimed she was a principal actor in the scandal, dubbed Guptagate.
The man who may feel hardest done by, by Zuma, is Schabir Shaik, his one-time financial adviser.
He was convicted on charges, among others, of soliciting a bribe on Zuma’s behalf from Arms Deal beneficiary Thales.
Zuma was later indicted, among more than 700 other charges, on a main charge of benefiting in a corrupt manner to the tune of about R1.3m from his relationship with Shaik.
The corruption charges against Zuma were controversially dropped by the National Prosecuting Authority shortly before the 2009 elections, in which he stood as the ANC’s top candidate. Today, he is once more Number One on its list.