South Africa’s Zuma, Tested by Mining Crisis, Faces Scandal Close to Home
By Lydia Polgreen, NY Times, October 23, 2012
NKANDLA, South Africa—On a pair of hilltops in this rolling, verdant corner of Zululand, two traditional family compounds owned by septuagenarian patriarchs square off. On one lies the tidy spread of a resolutely middle class family, the Sitholes: eight slightly lumpy hand-built structures, a vegetable patch and pens for cows, goats and chickens, the fruit of four decades of hard work and frugal living.
Across the valley, a homestead of an entirely different magnitude has mushroomed. It includes dozens of smooth, contractor-built dwellings, a helicopter landing pad, a tennis court and a soccer field. A sports stadium and some underground bunkers are in the works, according to news reports. Glassy, newly paved roads lead to it, and the taupe walls of its neatly thatched rondavels are spotless despite the bucolic setting.
This compound belongs to the most powerful man in the country, President Jacob Zuma, and is now the subject of multiple probes over how $27 million of government money came to be spent on upgrades to his private home, ostensibly for security. Tens of millions more dollars have been spent on roads around the compound and the village.
“He hasn’t built anything for us,” said the matriarch of the Sithole compound, Phindile Sithole, casting a glare at Mr. Zuma’s spread across the valley. “He has only built for himself.”
The scandal over improvements to Mr. Zuma’s private home could not have come at a worse time for the beleaguered president. South Africa is facing perhaps its most serious crisis since the end of apartheid, as wildcat strikes roil the gold and platinum mining industries. Just on Tuesday, Gold Fields, one of world’s largest gold producers, fired 8,500 workers who had refused to stop striking.
Miners have been demanding sharp pay increases, and the unrest is emblematic of the gulf between South Africa’s richest and poorest citizens, a gap that has only widened since the end of apartheid. A deep perception has taken hold, rightly or not, that the leaders of the struggle against apartheid now at the helm of the governing African National Congress have cashed in, enriching themselves and leaving the poor behind.
Indeed, the A.N.C. is celebrating its centenary this year, but to many South Africans the venerable organization’s commemorative slogan—“100 Years of Selfless Struggle”—seems more like a punch line to a cruel joke. On Facebook and Twitter, photographs of an expensive sports car emblazoned with the slogan have made the rounds. Mr. Zuma is also fending off challenges to his leadership within his own party as potential rivals vie to derail his plans for a second term.
Mr. Zuma, who turned 70 this year, came from a poor rural Zulu family. He left school at a young age and devoted his life to the fight against apartheid. He joined Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the A.N.C., and served a decade in prison on Robben Island alongside struggle stalwarts like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. But like many top leaders of the A.N.C. since the end of apartheid, he has come to live an opulent life despite never having held a highly lucrative job.
Mr. Zuma has said family members paid for most of the construction of his compound here. But questions about his personal finances have swirled for years; a bevy of corruption charges against him were dropped in 2009 amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
Speaking to a business group, Mr. Zuma said that his family, not the government, had built his homestead, and that he had no idea what kind of security upgrades were being done or what they might cost.
The Department of Public Works, which is carrying out the upgrades, released a statement saying that the work was strictly related to Mr. Zuma’s security as head of state and that the government had “taken special care to allocate expenses to private and public entities, as appropriate.” The agency did not release a dollar amount, but local news outlets have cited government documents showing that the upgrades cost $27 million, a figure the government has not disputed publicly.
Grandiose palaces were once common for African leaders, a habit they picked up from the colonizing kings of Europe. Mobutu Sese-Seko had opulent mansions dotted across Zaire, as Congo was then known, and was said to insist that the runways built next to each one be long enough to accommodate the Concorde, should he wish to charter the supersonic jet for a quick shopping trip to Paris or Brussels.
Félix Houphouët-Boigny, whose velvet-gloved iron fist ruled over Ivory Coast from its independence until his death three decades later, built a basilica larger than Saint Peter’s in Rome amid the dense jungle of his hometown as a tribute to his pious mother.
But South Africa, which cast off white rule less than two decades ago, was supposed to be different, and for the most part it has been. To be sure, its presidents have enjoyed the perquisites of power, but within limits.
Nelson Mandela, the country’s first post-apartheid president, has the refined and occasionally opulent tastes of a nobleman, which he is, being part of the royal family of his Xhosa clan. After being released from prison in 1990, he did not return to his modest home in the black township of Soweto, instead choosing to settle in Houghton, a wealthy white suburb of Johannesburg.
But the sprawling compound in his Eastern Cape village, Qunu, where he now spends most of his time, is tiny compared with Mr. Zuma’s spread in Nkandla. Mr. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, has a fondness for Savile Row suits and fine scotch, but he lives in a large though not especially opulent home in Johannesburg.