By Sheena Adams and Kashiefa Ajam

The Independent on Saturday can reveal for the first time a unique aerial photograph of President Thabo Mbeki's sprawling new retirement home in Riviera, Johannesburg, under construction by a company with controversial links to a former cabinet minister.

With original wooden floors, crystal chandeliers and a steel strong room, the house also includes an extensive outdoor entertainment area with a lapa and a plunge pool.

The incomplete garden is a pet project of first lady Zanele Mbeki, according to builders, and the house is expected to be complete in a month's time.

The government has reacted angrily to suggestions that the state is sponsoring the multi-million-rand construction, saying that it is footing the bill for the security arrangements only.

This includes a Fort Knox-style wall, topped by electric fencing, and a bulletproof guardhouse at the foot of the extensive driveway.

Motheo Construction, the subject of a massive housing scandal nearly 10 years ago, was contracted by Zanele Mbeki to build the house in North Road on the cusp of Houghton Estate.

Founded in 1994 by current chairperson and executive director Thandi Ndlovu, a friend of former housing minister Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele, the Motheo name was dragged through the mud in 1997 after a massive housing scandal which led to the resignation of Saths Moodley, then executive chairperson of the Mpumalanga Housing Board.

Moodley bounced back last year as special adviser to current housing minister Lindiwe Sisulu.

Both the auditor-general and a provincial commission of inquiry were involved in an investigation into the irregular awarding of a R190-million low-cost housing contract to Motheo Construction after an exposé by the Mail & Guardian newspaper.

Fingers were pointed at Moodley after it was found that he had driven the deal at the housing board and had not provided sufficient information for the board to make a proper assessment of Motheo's application.

Director of Motheo Construction Gavin Munro said on Friday that the "so-called scandal" happened before his time and that the Motheo group had new management.

On Friday, as the public relations machine continued to churn about reports that taxpayers were footing the R8-million bill for the "African thatch-style" home near Oxford Road, the department of public works said that it was funding security for the project and that it was not for the taxpayer to query the amount.

The Independent on Saturday has established that the first lady bought the property in 2004. According to Motheo, the original house was razed and rebuilt to the Mbekis' specification.

The government had come out with guns blazing against suggestions that the department of public works had put up the R8-million building costs.

Departmental spokesperson Lucky Mochalibane said it was a "cabinet policy directive" that the department pay for the provision of security at the official as well as the private residences of presidents and former presidents.

"The issue concerns the security of the president and it is not for us to comment on it. Everything costs money... What's the point of throwing around figures? If I say we are spending R2-million, the logical next question will be: 'What is it being spent on?', and we can't answer that," he said.

He added that there was no truth in reports that the department was paying for the construction of the house itself, stressing it was being built "by the Mbeki family at their cost".

Chief government spokesperson Themba Maseko said it was "totally untrue" that the state was sponsoring a "retirement villa for the president".

Munro said the company was contracted by "a Miss Dlamini", the first lady's maiden name, and that the Mbekis were paying for the house.

He said that the department of public works was funding the security detail but would not say how much this amounted to, except to say that it was "a very small proportion" of the total R7,9-million contract cost for the "modest" home.

Democratic Alliance chief whip Douglas Gibson, who tried to gain access to the property along with a contingent of journalists on Friday, said in a statement that the government had "done its best" to keep the house under wraps when they should have acted in an open and transparent manner.

Dr Corne Mulder, of the Freedom Front Plus, said he hoped the house was not a "personal gift to the president on behalf of the taxpayers without asking them".

The house that former president P W Botha lives in near George was also purchased privately. Mbeki's new home is the third presidential retirement home on the continent to generate controversy in recent years.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was slammed last year for moving into a retirement palace north of Harare, built for a whopping R187-million.

Concerns were also raised last year about the luxury beachfront mansion built for Mozambique's former president, Joaquim Chissano.