Durban - President Jacob Zuma says he has extended a helping hand to his neighbours and other poor South Africans elsewhere, to the extent of not only building houses for them, but in some cases going so far as to pay lobolo for a man who could not afford it.
This year alone the Jacob G Zuma Foundation would hand over four fully furnished houses to poor families, and it had built numerous others over the years, he said.
Zuma’s comments came just days after Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema handed over a house to a poor Nkandla family just metres from the president’s residence.
Some EFF members have accused Zuma of being oblivious to the plight of his poor neighbours.
But Zuma said he was always confronted by the poor who sometimes visited his Nkandla home with requests ranging from a need for houses and education to those who wanted help to fund traditional ceremonies.
“I cannot say I don’t have money when somebody says ‘I haven’t eaten’. Some come (to Nkandla) and then say later they don’t have money to go back. Some say: ‘I lost a husband some years ago and I have never done a ritual to cleanse myself’… I cannot ask questions (but) I have to give,” Zuma said.
He was speaking on Monday at JL Dube (formerly King’s) House, his official residence in Durban, where he bade farewell to 10 students funded by his foundation to study at the American University of Nigeria.
Zuma told a story of how he was once approached by two girls who asked that he build a house for their disabled mother. Then the women who were at university complained that when they were away studying, there was nobody to look after their mother.
“The two girls then said we have a brother and he has a girlfriend whose family has agreed that she (the mother) can come to us if he pays something (in a form of lobolo).
The president said after considering the woman’s plight and talking to his family he ended up paying lobolo for the sisters’ younger brother.
But his passion lay with education.
“If I had the opportunities I would have become a teacher or a pastor. I would have also wanted to become a lawyer, what they call senior counsel, so as to defend the poor.”
Over the years, Zuma said, he had received numerous requests from needy students to the point where his trust could not cope. He had then established the foundation to help fund the trust, but that too had been overwhelmed.
Whenever the trust was having difficulty paying for students, Zuma would resort to writing “letters of promise” to universities asking them to accept students with a promise that they would be paid at a later stage. “I would just say we will pay, but would not say when,” he said.
He linked up with Atiku Abubakar, the founder of the American University of Nigeria, who agreed that his university would take five students from the foundation each year and pay for fees. The foundation only had to pay for their transport and monthly allowances.
The Nigerian university, which Zuma said was among the best, accepted the first batch of students last year.
Lefa Mphirima, one of the students already studying at the university, described his time there as a “pleasant experience”.
“The only problem is the temperature there, but we have a swimming pool inside the school. When we arrived they even threw a party for us and made us taste different kinds of food. But the food there is really hot. I think the people there love pepper too much,” he said to laughter.
Comparing the standards of education, he said Nigeria seemed to have the upper hand.
“To pass there you have to get 63 percent, while in South Africa it’s down there… down there,” he said, soliciting laughter even from Zuma, whose government has come under attack for lowering the pass mark in matric.
Nomkhosi Zulu,who got five As in matric, and will be studying petroleum chemistry, thanked Zuma, saying: “You seriously saved my life.”
Zulu said she had struggled to get funding to further her studies before the foundation had come to her rescue.