UNDER A CLOUD: President Jacob Zuma's homestead in Nkandla. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
President Jacob Zuma's homestead in Nkandla. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE lack of detailed information about the money being spent on President Jacob Zuma’s home in Nkandla and the growing controversy in the matter lead one to consider more carefully why R250m of state funds were needed for the upgrade.

For the past two weeks, I have listened to the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the African National Congress (ANC) trying to explain why the money was either misspent or why it was not.

It has been hard to find common ground, yet I have found myself sympathising with Zuma’s exasperation. Whether this will be borne out by the investigations into the matter by the public protector and the auditor-general on the instruction of the Department of Public Works remains to be seen.

The issue is of political importance for South Africa given the problems of corruption and poverty and one might have expected Zuma to have made an example of how such a project could be accomplished transparently. But Nkandla is in KwaZulu-Natal, where political tension runs high and politicians are still being murdered regularly. One might also have expected the DA to have had a few more facts at its fingertips before venturing on an inspection of the property, an event that inflamed tension in an area that is predominantly ANC-supporting.

The problem of excessive state spending seems to have arisen when the Department of Public Works and the Department of Defence decided that the security at the Nkandla property needed to be upgraded. Unlike other government ministers, the president is the commander of the armed forces and in times of conflict needs to be able to take charge from a safe place where there are enough services for swift transport, modern communication and effective security.

So it is reasonable to expect that these two departments should answer to the allegations of irregular spending.

The idea that Zuma should have inquired at these two departments about the cost of the cement being poured for the helicopter pad, or the underground bunker, for instance, is ludicrous. It is not his job to micromanage such things.

In addition, the Department of Defence is not likely to release a list of itemised expenditure on the president’s security because it would defeat the object of the security upgrade.

The tar road just completed outside Nkandla, which is being hailed in some media as another example of extravagance on the part of the president, was first made a priority in KwaZulu-Natal in 2003, which was long before Zuma came to power.

Then there is the money involved. About R250m seems to be a large sum of money to be allocated for security measures at a private residence. But there are some mitigating factors here. Nkandla is deep in a rural area where there are few basic services such as water and sanitation. Additional transport, rough terrain and remote locations can all add significantly to construction costs — sometimes as much as 40%. In addition, Zuma’s security personnel require housing and relaxation facilities near the house. They, and the president, would also need medical facilities close at hand.

One can speculate about the cost of the sophisticated equipment and facilities that may be required at the house of a commander of an army, such as high-specification radio, communication and security encryption equipment. This type of expenditure may sound outlandish as South Africa has no enemy, but all modern countries spend a great deal of money on the protection of their heads of state.

There is also the reality that whatever infrastructure the state spends money on these days, it inevitably ends up costing a great deal more than anybody envisaged. The R250m may still seem to be a large amount of money to have been spent, in spite of all these mitigating factors. But it most certainly does not point to Zuma being corrupt, as has been suggested in some quarters.

The DA’s parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, was correct when she said in Parliament that when R250m of state funds is spent on a private residence, it can no longer be considered a private matter. It never was.

It is the home of South Africa’s president, who is the leader of the biggest political party in the country.

• West is KwaZulu-Natal editor.