THIS is worse than Watergate; worse even than the Muldergate scandal of the apartheid era, which led to the demise of information minister Connie Mulder and eventually prime minister John Vorster.
Those were global landmarks of political notoriety. But now they have been surpassed by President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandlagate. It is more outrageous and despicable by far.
I say this because Watergate and Muldergate were about political skulduggery. The then American president Richard Nixon condoned the burglary at Washington’s Watergate Hotel to get his hands on his political opponents’ campaign plans ahead of an election. Mulder and his cohorts misused taxpayers’ money trying to buy journalists and whole newspapers to "tell the good story" of apartheid South Africa. They cheated and lied for political reasons.
Nkandlagate is about personal greed and moral shamelessness. It is about looting public money so that one man and his family can live in extravagant opulence for the rest of their lives — amid some of his people’s most abject poverty.
As Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report reveals, Zuma’s grandiose estate, set in R10m worth of landscape gardening covering the size of eight-and-a-half soccer pitches, is in an area populated by 114,416 of some of the country’s poorest people.
Around 40% of them are unemployed. Only 10,000 households have electricity, 7,000 have no access to piped water and 12,000 are still using pit latrines.
Where are those zealous young African National Congress (ANC) poo-throwers now?
Worst of all, though, is the fact that the ANC, its national executive committee and its Cabinet, are going to stand by this flawed leader. At least Nixon had the decency to resign over Watergate, as did Mulder and eventually Vorster.
That is what Zuma should do if he wants to save any honour for himself, his party and his country.
It would, of course, be a tough call for any ruling party to dump its leader just six weeks before a national election. But they could do so soon after May 7.
I hope so, because to cling to Zuma for another five years would be disastrous for the ANC. Nkandla is not going to go away, just as the arms deal scandal has not. Nor will the Guptagate affair. Zuma is tainted beyond redemption and if the ANC leadership decides to rally around him come hell or high water, all its ministers and other senior officials will have to keep obfuscating, lying and deceiving the public for the next five years, by which time they will themselves all be morally corrupted. Which would mean the disintegration of the party.
And let me say this. Critical though I have been of the ANC under the Zuma administration these past few years, it is obviously still the party of the majority of our black people, so its precipitous disintegration would be disastrous for South Africa.
I believe the ANC is on its way out, because it is strife-torn, has grown tired and is bereft of fresh ideas. But it will be a gradual, incremental decline that will ensure stability through the transition. A sudden disintegration could lead to chaos. I hope Zuma realises that and acts as he should.
Meanwhile, there is the question of whether Zuma lied to Parliament — which is an impeachable offence — when he told the National Assembly that he and his family had built their own Nkandla homes and that the state had not built any or benefited them. As Madonsela has found, this was not true.
But she declined to make a finding on the question of lying because, she says, Zuma claims he was thinking only about the houses, not the array of other structures that had been added at state expense, such as a visitors centre, a cattle kraal, chicken run, swimming pool, an amphitheatre and a string of other expensive amenities. It may, she says, have been "a bona fide mistake".
After a close reading of Madonsela’s lengthy and meticulously detailed report, I think that was a generous decision.
The core fault in the Nkandla affair is that it was undertaken as a "cost-shared project". Before he became president, Zuma decided to upgrade his private home in rural KwaZulu-Natal, which at the time consisted of a few rondavels surrounded by a ramshackle fence. He took out a bond, engaged an architect and a quantity surveyor, and work began on building three new homes the architect designed for him.
After becoming president, standing rules required that this property be provided with prescribed security facilities. The work had to be supervised by police and defence force units and paid for by the state. But at the president’s insistence, his private architect, Manenhle Makhanya, was appointed as the architect and principal agent for the whole project; in other words, the man who was the on-the-ground boss of the whole enterprise — without the job having been put out to tender, as required, and without a thought being given to the obvious conflict of interests that might be involved.
Here was the president’s private architect in control of a project in which costs had to be shared between Zuma, as his primary employer, and the state. With everyone else involved eager to please Number One, the door was obviously wide open for costs to be slipped from one account to the other.
Thus, a "safe haven" for the president required by the regulations, which could have been built inside the main house for R500,000, ballooned into an elaborate underground bunker accessible by special lifts from all three of the houses with a secret exit at a total cost of R14m.
Similar escalations happened across the board resulting, in Madonsela’s words, "in substantial value being unduly added to the president’s private property". Even allowing for the bona fide mistake, can anyone believe Zuma was unaware of this?
That is how the costs of a project initially estimated at R27m swelled to R246m. That is a tenfold, or 1,000%, overrun. Madonsela has described it as "unconscionable". Yet no one directly involved in the project asked any questions. Madonsela has excoriated them, including some ministers and whole organs of state, saying they "failed dismally" and finds some guilty of unlawful and improper conduct and maladministration.
But what about the president? He was Number One in this project, officially referred to as "the principal".
He received many reports, was kept informed by his architect, paid several visits to the work site, even issued instructions about changes he wanted to be made.
It is inconceivable that he never noticed the whole project was going over the top to such an extravagant and highly visible degree.
Madonsela seems to think so too. She says there is no evidence he ever asked about costs. "It is my considered view," she says, "that he tacitly accepted the implementation of all measures at his residence and has unduly benefited from the enormous capital investment from the nonsecurity installations at his private residence."
This failure to act was a serious breach of the Executive Ethics Code and amounted to "conduct that is inconsistent with his office as a member of the Cabinet".
Quite clearly Zuma didn’t want to know. In his world, there is a notice on his desk saying: "The buck bypasses here."
• Allister Sparks was editor of the Rand Daily Mail when it exposed the Muldergate scandal.