The Week That Was
For two days last week, I reported from the front-lines of what many in the media call NkandlaGate. In reality, I have been standing on the side of the road leading to South African President Jacob Zuma’s Private Homestead in Nkandla, a town situated in the uThungulu district of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
You can see the his house a kilometre or so from the road which the president constructed to make his 3 hectare home easily accessible by road. But what you don’t hear about Nkandla in the media is how beautiful it is.
The luscious green rolling hills, blue skies and a windswept landscape is breath-taking. The exquisite quiet and serene atmosphere seems to slow the ticking clock down as if silently announcing that here everything is well and in order.
School children, goats, donkeys and cows all stroll languidly on the main road in no rush to go anywhere in particular. Chickens feast on abandoned plates of livers at a nearby Chisanyama (meat barbecue butcher/shop).
It is an idyllic rural landscape surpassed by none I have had the pleasure to visit. The environment is so fine that even South Africa’s’ official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance’s youth league leader Mbali Ntuli couldn’t help but exclaim “It’s Beautiful, though!” to her delegation which included an alarmed DA National Spokesperson Mmusi Maimane who asked her softly, “do you really think so Mbali?”
This was, after all, a scene of a heinous crime, Nkandla. In fact the DA had just laid eight charges against President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla on Thursday. They want President Zuma impeached and held personally liable for monies spent upgrading his unassuming kingdom. This after the country’s Public Protector Thuli Mandonsela on Wednesday released a report which found that president Jacob Zuma materially benefited from (non) security upgrades at his private residence which were initially projected to cost 27 million ZAR when the project started in 2009 but ballooned to more than 240 million to date. The Public Protector said without a hint of humour in her voice that “what started as a humble project to upgrade security ended up becoming a project to build a township.”
Tax-payers money or public funds were irregularly used to renovate President Jacob Zuma’s private residence which was declared a National Security Key Point to expedite security installations.
What We Call Grass Roots
The day the public protector Thuli Mandonsela released her report I was doing some kind of a door to door campaign myself, speaking to President Jacob Zuma’s neighbours, telling them what was going on and asking for their opinions. Most of them didn’t see what the fuss was all about. “He is the president, he deserves to live in a house better than ours, how can you question the president? He is the president. I’m not the president,” said an old man who has been living in Nkandla with his wife and 11 children for more than 30 years. “What’s wrong if the president builds a house, we see it, it’s beautiful and it makes us happy to see progress: are you suggesting that the president must come and build my house too? I am happy here, we have water, look we farm, and we have livestock even though the drought has killed our crops for two seasons now. We can’t blame Zuma for the sun! All we can do is to be grateful for this life and just wait till the good Lord decides to take us. You can’t hate someone for his God-given talent, that’s what God gave him and you can’t fault him for that” he said.
I tried mentioning the money but he interjected “would you ask your neighbour where they got the money to build their house from? Would you? So? It’s none of my business where he gets his money. It has nothing to do with me”.
The old mans’ wife who had been standing by the fence listening to the conversation volunteered to share her views on the matter too. “I’ve lived here since I got married” she offered “then, there was nothing in this village. But since President Zuma came back we see things getting better and better, now we have a road, now we have schools and a clinic, grants for pensioners, things we didn’t have before. We have electricity, we have water. We don’t see any fault in what he is doing building his house because we have seen what changes he has brought here, change doesn’t happen all at once simultaneously, we have to wait our turn, we hope that one day his good fortune will extend to us too” she concluded.
How Can A Thatch Roof House Cost 240 million?
The old man and his wife were not the only ones who held this view. “What do you see wrong with the house? It is just a simple thatched roofed homestead, there’s nothing fancy there, nothing to it at all. The president has built his home the Zulu way, it’s how we build our homes too and please you tell me what is wrong with that?” they asked one after the other.
I told them there are features to the house such as a swimming pool, a helipad and amphitheatre which they can’t see from the road side. But they wouldn’t have it. Some even looked at me blankly as if I had gone completely mad when I told them how much money was spent upgrading the President’s beautiful home. “How can a house with a thatched roof cost 215 Million? Ihhaba lelo Impela. It’s an exaggeration. They shook their heads one after the other. Ihhaba lelo. Indlu yotshani Ayikwazi ukubiza imali engaka!. A house with a thatched roof can’t cost so much money. “Amanga” It’s lies. It became clear that I had my work cut out for me. “If the president uses tax money to build his home…what does he do with his salary? I mean he earns a salary every month” asked Mr Shezi who I found sitting under a tree opposite the satellite police station wondered at me. “He earns a salary every year, millions, so what does he do with his money? What does his salary do?” he wondered at the the distant hills. “It just lies sister, because the media lies. I don’t believe what the media says, they make things up all the time. I don’t believe it” he said.
Mind Your Language And Tell A Good Story
I have been to two African National Congress (ANC) election campaign events in the President’s hometown province. On both occasions, the President was the guest of honour. At one of those events held at the University of Zululand, President Zuma was honouring his friend and little known fellow Robben Islander, Riot Mkhwanazi. He announced that a stretch of road in Zululand will be named after his friend and to prove he didn’t come empty-handed, a fridge was wheeled into the auditorium, “to make sure that if you want a cold one you can get it” he said to him.
Throughout his two to three-hour long speech he never once uttered a word in English. He told stories surrounding time spent with his good friend in exile. This is where I discovered the magic of President Jacob Zuma. He is a consummate storyteller. He has a sweet tongue and a way of communicating in isiZulu that makes sense. He sounds sober, considered and completely charming when he speaks his mother tongue. In fact, he is someone you can trust. He comes across so sincere and honest that you almost can’t fault him. He sounds like a man worthy of his word. President Zuma was the chief of the ANC Intelligence operations underground for the party’s armed wing Umkhonto WesiZwe or MK. So he is not as many would like to believe stupid. The president knows what he is doing and how to play the game. He has the right speech prepared for everyone but his best speeches are in isiZulu which is so immaculate it borders on being perfect. And this is where the break fault lines appear down, between the middle class which is well-educated and pays taxes and the people living in rural areas governed by Chiefs or Amakhosi under whose traditional leadership they must abide. There are ways of speaking to the elderly, there are ways of talking and even criticising leaders that are understood based on the dominant patrilineal hierarchy. Everything and everyone has its place and under this traditional system. Here there are no “constitutional rights” only laws which govern kings and servants.
So while Thuli Mandela’s report is damning on President Jacob Zuma’s character…the timing for the release of the report, contrary to ANC’s protestations works in favour of President Jacob Zuma and his campaign for re-election come May 7th. Because at least in Nkandla and in KwaZulu-Natal, this report is only just lies, an exaggeration on the grandest scale. A political campaign by all concerned including the public protector to discredit the President ahead of the elections. “They never probed Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela’s homes why? It’s because we’re heading to towards the elections that they come and make trouble. We will vote for Zuma, he’s been with us through thick and thin.” said another woman.
At a fresh produce market adjacent to the police station women sat selling fruit on bare tables. They were suspicious of us. “Oh you’re here because it’s elections!” they exclaimed unwilling to give interviews. “Poor Mongamenli (leader)” exclaimed one trader paging through a daily Zulu Newspaper, “every day all you see are pictures of his house, Nkandla this, Nkandla that, they just won’t let him go” she said putting her hands on her head in mock horror. “we are all suffering here, we live in rural areas we are all not having a great time” said one man in blue overalls peering out of darkened doorway “what do you want to know? Zuma loves his country, that’s all I can say” a cynical smile spread across his lean bearded face “when he invites us to his parties, we all go and drink and be merry. No problem. He comes out dressed in his traditional gear, he dances for us and all is well. They must just leave him alone’ he concluded. “Some people are afraid to talk” offered a boy in school uniform quickly adding “I know nothing”
I Know Nothing; Brush Up on Your English Man!
Why. It felt as if there was some kind of conspiracy. It seemed to me impossible that people knew nothing as they so easily claimed. I couldn’t accept this. Yet I could not force people to speak either. Everywhere I went people were talking, whispering, but the words were empty. Hollow. Why. The radio was playing at full blast at the Chisanyama. The young proprietor sat outside under the shade listening to tthe Public Protector Thuli Mandonsela as she delivered her report. She was indeed eloquent, soft-spoken. Her authoritative whispers blended very well with the slow quiet green landscape in Nkandla, her voice hovered patiently over the hills in harmony with a cool gentle breeze as if she was God. Yet even I found it hard to follow her delivery of the summarized version of her 400 page report which took two years to compile in the midst of the humid sun.
She has perfect diction, her grammar immaculate she can’t be faulted with her command of the English language, a perfect mix of beautiful and cute. I wished I had studied law, Literature, Economics. I wished I was all-knowing. I listened, I heard, I understood each word. But what does it mean? I was searching for meaning with every sentence she uttered. I would have to read it to fully comprehend it, I thought to myself.
Yes, my editor was right I needed to brush up on my English. But if I (and I may not be a great example here) could not fully comprehend everything Ms Madonsela was saying, how was everyone else doing?
I listened to the Zulu summary at the end of the broadcast and found glaring gaps. “What is intela? (Tax)” One woman asked another at the fresh produce market “everyone must pay it” another responded “have you paid intela?” she asked in isiZulu. They all looked at each other. No one had paid tax amongst them, therefore they could not understand – what is meant by tax, public funds or how government works. And most critically they did not know where all the money the president used on upgrades at his house came from. If you have never drafted a budget in your life, your understanding of what budgeting actually means would be limited. It will forever remain something that other people do, which is of no consequence to you. Which means you will have no real sense of what goods and services actually cost – how much you spend on what and how. But perhaps they did understand and were – like everyone – from the police to the opposition party – just playing their role in this elaborate stage play called Nkandla-Gate.
I found myself feeling annoyed. Because what I heard and what I saw, and what I read made no sense. I was lost in translation. Here in Nkandla English and isiZulu became foreign languages to me. The police man could pronounce my surname fluently. He is also from Limpopo. He also knows of my father’s village he tells me.
The president is not seen as a Public servant, a custodian of public’s trust and well-being, but as a king who can tell this one to go there and he goes or that one to come here and he comes. Had Thuli Mandonsela delivered her report in at least two official languages, in isiZulu and English, would that have made any difference to what people in Nkandla knew? Would it change their understanding of the meaning of the word President? Good governance? The Public? Would they be critical? “You know,” they said pointing at me “the media knows what is going on.” Would I be a better communicator if I brushed up on my English and learned to use the correct word in the right context?
As it turns out, Nkandla used to be a physicalcrime scene 15 years ago. “My homestead was burned twice during the violence. Secondly, criminals came in and raped my wife during the time I was still the MEC,” revealed President Zuma two days before the national elections.
I realize again that all of it is simply a matter of interpretation. The one with a better argument, not facts, wins.
*Post originally published in March, 2014