Durban - Jacob Zuma’s ascendency to the pinnacle of the country’s politics, in 2007 when he ousted then president Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane, first brought public attention to Nkandla, his impoverished hometown in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
At some point, media teams trekked in and out of the area to speak to locals about one of their own becoming the most powerful man in the country and probably on the African continent. It fostered hope that finally the place would be developed.
Previously, Nkandla had no clean water, no electricity and the roads were so poor that the drive to the nearest and better-resourced towns of eShowe, Kranskop and Greytown was a real struggle.
As Zuma faces legal challenges and continues to wrestle with the Zondo Commission, which is probing allegations of state capture under his presidency, most residents are reluctant to speak about the latest developments in the saga.
One resident even told Independent Media that “we don’t discuss those issues with the media here. We only discuss them behind closed doors as the Zumas are our neighbours. Long after the media is gone, we have to face them and live with them.”
Independent Media was in the area to monitor the visit of the leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) to pledge their support for Zuma as he faces arrest for defying the Constitutional Court, which had instructed him to avail himself to the Zondo Commission.
Back to life under Zuma in Nkandla. Some villagers of the municipality, with 14 rural wards, agree that there was some development under Zuma. They cite the electrification of the area, roads that were built and provision of clean water.
Bonginkosi Dladla, a Nkandla pensioner, said things had indeed changed and they were grateful that the village got some sort of a facelift.
“Yes, we saw some development in the area and that can be attributed to him becoming president. Some departments could not ignore a place where the head of state lived. However, there is a feeling that since he left power, development has stalled,” Dladla said in deep Zulu which is normally spoken in northern parts of the province.
While camped outside the sprawling home of the Zumas, two young women passed and some questions were posed on whether their hopes for development were dashed when Zuma left power. At first, they were reluctant to speak, but later one of them lamented that since Zuma left power, there has not been a reliable supply of water.
“Since Zuma left, the provision of clean water has been lacking. We have no idea why. Sometimes our taps are dry for days and no one bothers to explain why. As residents, we think the water was being reliably provided because Zuma was in power,” claimed one of the women who did not give her identity.
Another resident, Bheki Zakwe, who claimed to have only returned to the area in recent years after spending most of his time in Pietermaritzburg where he worked, said some developments were going on as planned.
Zakwe cited the building of a better gravel road connecting Nkandla to Kranskop via uThukela river.
“My understanding of the whole situation is that all projects are known or are being carried through. Look at the workers working on that gravel road to Kranskop. They haven’t stopped because Zuma has left. Yes, there may be projects that have stopped, but I don’t know about them,” Zakwe said.
For others, Zuma’s exit from power seems to have left them with hardship. Bhekeni MaShange Mbambo, a pensioner who has been a neighbour of the Zumas for decades, said it was undeniable that Nkandla was a hive of activity during Zuma’s terms in office. She said some of them had since gone hungry as EPWP (Expanded Public Works Program) jobs were no longer available like they used to be.
“A lot has changed for some of us since Nxamalala (Zuma) left the presidency. We used to get part-time jobs like uprooting alien weeds, thus making money. Now that’s no longer the case. However, we are grateful that we witnessed some development and that changed Nkandla a great deal,” she said in Zulu.
Nkandla municipality is under the leadership of the IFP and that has been the case since 1996 when the country adopted the local government system. But at some point after the 2011 local government elections, the ANC won it through a coalition with the NFP but the IFP quickly reclaimed it.
Asked about Nkandla after Zuma, the IFP mayor, Thami Ntuli, dismissed as a fallacy that Zuma had a hand in the development of the area.
He said what is currently seen as development was done to benefit Zuma, not the whole community.
“The only tarred road (worth R582 million) we saw was the one that connects Nkandla to Kranskop and that road passes by the home of the former president. We are not aware of another project that came because of Zuma or was brought by him.
“Right now, as it was the case in the past, we have challenges with houses which were promised to people by the provincial department of housing but were not built, roads that are not maintained by the provincial department of transport. We had these challenges even during his presidency,” Ntuli said.
Ntuli concurred with some residents that since Zuma left, the provision of water by the King Cetshwayo district municipality has been lacking.
“While we have water challenges, the problem has worsened after Zuma left. Taps are dry and the district municipality is failing the people,” he said.
While the local accommodation tourism industry which is anchored in the town of eShowe could not be reached, one could assume that it has suffered immensely after Zuma left. This is as during Zuma’s time business people and politicians from all walks of life used to sleep in the nearby and better-resourced towns in order to get an audience with Zuma.
Some of Zuma’s large staff which included a extensive security team used to be accommodated in the town. At some point, the bill for accommodating them was questioned and when Zuma was ousted, his security detail was significantly trimmed.
For the residents of Nkandla, like many similar towns in the country, there is uncertainty over employment, infrastructure development and the stable provision of water and electricity. Many believe it will be a long time before the area experiences another golden era.