Zuma's private palace irks voters


Nkandla - S’thandiwe Hlongwane's brick house lies only a stone's throw from South African President Jacob Zuma's private home but the two hardly belong in the same country, let alone the same village.

Like most homes in Nkandla, in the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, Hlongwane's is concrete and basic.

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African National Congress ( ANC) leader Jacob Zuma (front L) waves at supporters after casting his vote for the general elections at the Ntolwane Primary School in Nkandla.  AFP/ PHOTO RAJESH JANTILALS'thandiwe Hlongwane stands outside the house that was built by Economic Freedom Fighters supporters barely 500 metres from President Jacob Zuma's controversial Nkandla residence, Tuesday, 6 May 2014.. She will be voting at Ntolwane Primary School, the very place that Zuma will be casting his vote. Picture: Giordano Stolley/SAPA

A recent facelift and lick of paint were paid for by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), an upstart opposition party led by Julius Malema.

Zuma's abode, by contrast, is a sprawling compound of ornate thatched houses, complete with R246 million of state-funded security features including a swimming pool, amphitheatre, cattle enclosure and chicken run.

The Public Protector has said Zuma “benefited unduly” from the upgrade and has told him to pay back some of the money, fuelling public outrage at a scandal that has been the main talking point in this year's election.

“Today is the day where you use your 'X' to say what you think about Zuma's house,” said Hlongwane, 31, wearing Malema's signature red beret as she queued to vote on Wednesday in the fifth election since the end of apartheid.

As with many people in one of the poorest parts of Africa's richest economy, Hlongwane is jobless and relies on a 310 rand ($30) monthly government grant to help support her two children.

Zuma insists he has done nothing wrong, going so far as to tell a news conference this week that the renovations to his home were “not an issue with the voters”.

“I'm not worried about Nkandla. The people are not worried about it. I think the people who are worried about it is you guys, the media, and the opposition,” the 72-year-old said.

In some ways he is right. Despite the outcry, polls suggest the ANC will still win nearly two thirds of the vote, with many black voters sticking with the party that freed South Africa from decades of white-minority rule.

But voters in Zuma's back yard have taken note of the opulence on their doorstep and questioned the spending on the leader of a party that promised to bring equality to one of the world's most unequal societies.

Nobuhle Mngadi, an unemployed 41-year-old mother of three, has to trek daily down a dusty path to fetch water from a communal tap. She wonders why the ANC spent so much on Zuma rather than providing piped water to nearby homes.

“They have not been in power for very long,” Mngadi said, deciding, like many South Africans, to give Nelson Mandela's party another chance. “We will give them a little more time, but if nothing changes I will have to consider someone different.”

Overall, however, the Nkandla scandal has made little impression on the popularity of Zuma, a polygamous Zulu traditionalist, in the area.

As he turned up to vote at a nearby primary school, Zuma looked relaxed and confident. Hundreds of supporters in yellow, green and gold ANC regalia clapped, cheered and ululated with joy when they saw him arrive.

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