from Africa in Transition

Update on South Africa’s Nkandla Scandal

July 7, 2016

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As directed by the South African courts, the Treasury has determined that President Jacob Zuma owes the state ZAR 7.8 million (US$ 531,024) for work done on his private home, Nkandla. The South African government has spent over ZAR 246 million (US$ 16,747,680) ostensibly on “security upgrades.” Those include underground bunkers, a heliport, and elaborate communications facilities. But, they also include amenities not related to security such as a swimming pool, a chicken run, and a visitors’ center. It is these types of facilities for which the Treasury is seeking repayment.

Public expenditure on Nkandla has become a political football, with the opposition parties accusing the president of gross corruption. There has been a series of parliamentary moves and court cases regarding the issue. The upshot has been to strengthen South Africa’s “Chapter 9” institutions, those established by the constitution as outside the control of the government and designed to protect the human rights of South African citizens and to promote good government. In effect, the Nkandla episode has reaffirmed the constitutional limits on the power of parliament, dominated by Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC), and also on the presidency. The episode has reinforced the rule of law.

More immediately, Nkandla has reinforced Zuma’s popular reputation for corruption in the run up to important local government elections scheduled for August. Zuma has alienated some of the founders of the ANC, who have called for him to resign. If the August elections do not go well for the ANC, it is a distinct possibility that the ANC will remove Zuma from the party leadership, and, in effect, the presidency.

However, Zuma retains support. Zuma’s political allies, the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal (where Nkandla is located) and the ANC Women’s League, have called upon ANC members voluntarily to contribute to the Zuma repayment. The former general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COASTU), a parliamentary ally of the ANC but an enemy of Zuma, has denounced the proposal.

Nkandla occupies tribal trust land controlled by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. In principle, tribal land cannot be mortgaged, bought, or sold. This greatly reduces any market value Nkandla might have. King Zwelithini is a close ally of fellow Zulu Jacob Zuma. On June 28, King Zwelithini announced that he has started the process by which residential occupants of trust land will become fee simple owners of the land they occupy. That means the property could be bought, sold, and mortgaged. This would l be a personal bonanza for Zuma, and it is hard to believe that Zuma’s travails and King Zwelithini’s move are unrelated.

*All currency conversions are based on rates from June 30, 2016.

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