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KwaNxamalala in the Nkandla district may be the home of SA’s first citizen and the flashy cars and blue lights that accompany him when he visits, but at its core its people remain dirt poor.
Unlike President Jacob Zuma’s own homestead, which recently got a R65 million upgrade funded by taxpayers, the rural town itself, 50km away, is a sparsely populated, one-street marketplace. It consists of a supermarket, a social welfare office, a tavern and some struggling vendors.
Nkandla town’s aesthetic is so low-key, so bereft of modern city trappings, that it makes a town like Mthatha look like a First World metropolis.
The children walk long distances to school and many residents have no electricity, relying on wood fires to cook.
Although many roads in the KwaNxamalala area have been upgraded, road P50, which leads to Zuma’s homestead, is riddled with potholes.
But all of this could change, thanks to the multi-billion Nkandla Mlalazi Smart Growth Centre, incorporating Zuma’s own KwaNxamalala faction and touted as the first “small town” ever to be built by the SA government after 1994.
Amid accusations that KwaNxamalala is receiving preferential treatment, the project will see vast tracts of land expropriated for the construction of modern homes, a shopping mall, a college, banking facilities and other amenities.
Following the project’s launch last week, a sod-turning event is planned for next month. It will herald the development many hope will change the face of the greater Nkandla area forever.
Feasibility studies and design work have already been completed, according to rural development minister Gugile Nkwinti, whose department is financing the project.
“We anticipate that site clearance will commence by the end of July. Similar initiatives are soon to commence in Mayflower, Mpumalanga, and Jane Furse, Limpopo,” Nkwinti said during a parliamentary policy speech last week.
However, others, such as IFP MP Blessed Gwala, have misgivings.
“Why has he decided to look after Nkandla alone and not other areas? It shows favouritism. Maybe he wants to retire in his own small town one day.
“The next question is whether the president is not going to benefit personally from the project.”
It was reported in November that a company contracted by the public works department to do construction work on Zuma’s homestead, Bonelena Construction Enterprise and Projects, had the president’s niece on its payroll.
Additions to the homestead include three sets of underground living quarters with about 10 air-conditioned rooms, reported the Mail & Guardian. Other facilities include a clinic for Zuma and his family, a gymnasium, 20 houses for security guards, underground parking, a helicopter pad, playgrounds and a visitors’ centre.
Bhekumuzi Zuma, the leader of the Nxamalala clan in Nkandla, laughed off the notion that Nkandla was receiving preferential treatment.
The chief, who drives a gleaming green Audi A4 and is a blood relative of Zuma, said, “Msholozi is everywhere, he goes to every province. The Masakhane project that he introduced goes everywhere in the country. At the same time, it also does not mean that just because we are from Nkandla, we should not see development… There are no jobs, scores of people are just sitting idle.”
Nkandla is derived from the verb “khandla”, meaning to tire or exhaust. According to the local council’s website, it came about after Zulu king Shaka went to resolve a dispute in the area and when he arrived he claimed he was exhausted.
The municipality operated from an annual budget of R100 million – drawing in revenue of just 5 percent of that, said Mbali Mavimbela, the Nkandla Local Municipality’s chief operations officer.
Ntuthuko Mhlongo, technical services acting director, believes the people of Nkandla have every reason to celebrate the new project.
“The project will mean the people will have access to better services and jobs. It will create a number of jobs.”
Mhlongo emphasised that, in addition to the growth centre, another shopping mall would be built where the small derelict town presently stands.
Phumelele Mhlongo, who sells an assortment of pinafores and women’s underwear in the town, says life is tough.
A mother of three adults aged between 20 and 26, none of whom have found work, she says lost her husband to an illness four years ago.
“Things are bad. You sometimes sit here the whole day without anyone buying. But we still have to support our children,” said Mhlongo.
“Sometimes, we end up going to loan sharks just so we can raise money to buy something to sell.
“We would like the government to train us and build stalls, sponsor us with some money so we can sell properly.”
Mhlongo believes that, in the unlikely event that Zuma is not re-elected as ANC president in Mangaung in six months’ time – which would bring his presidency to an end – a death knell would be sounded for the people of Nkandla.
“Msholozi must look after us. We want him to continue leading because the president before him had never even heard of Nkandla. He did nothing for us. So Zuma has to look after his own people. I see no problem with that.”
Although fellow street trader Zandile Shezi is disappointed that she is still struggling and has never had a chance to speak to Zuma directly, she praised the president.
“I’m not disappointed at all. Before Zuma became president, we didn’t have a road, but we have one now and they’ve given us water and electricity. He has helped us because we were really suffering. Even the councillors were not doing their jobs, but they are now.
“We even get to see the mayor with our own eyes. He comes here to find out what we want. The other day, he came and gave jobs to 55 people.”