JOHANNESBURG – New security fences. A medical clinic. Fire-fighting services added for a helipad. Plus other upgrades, all for South African President Jacob Zuma's home to the tune of more than $23 million in taxpayer money. And all for his rural private residence.
Zuma is embroiled in a controversy over the costly additions to his private home in a country where millions still lack decent homes, running water, electrical power and adequate access to health and education services.
The revelations of the renovation of Zuma's rural compound, dubbed "Zumaville" in the local press, in KwaZulu-Natal come before the ruling African National Congress' December conference where Zuma seeks to be reappointed as the party's leader, and therefore its candidate for president in the 2014 national election.
Zuma's standing has already been shaken by the recent police killings of 34 striking platinum miners in the continuing wave of ongoing wildcat strikes. He is widely seen by striking miners as aloof to their concerns that they're not paid enough for the difficult and dangerous work they perform. Firebrand politician Julius Malema, ousted this year as ANC Youth League leader, says Zuma should not be allowed another term in office.
The government has refused to disclose the precise cost of the work on Zuma's countryside home. Local reports say the upgrades cost about 200 million rand ($23 million).
Zuma said at a breakfast meeting Thursday that he does not know how much the work will cost, that it was authorized by the Ministry of Works and was motivated by security concerns. Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi said last week that work on Zuma's residence was similar to that done on those of other South African presidents.
High security fences have been erected, roads upgraded, a medical clinic added and fire-fighting services developed for the helipad at the compound, according to the South African Press Association. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Deputy Public Works Minister Jeremy Cronin also could not confirm the cost but said the matter would be investigated for any "inexplicable overruns on costs," according to SAPA.
Some critics say the ANC party that was once led by anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela is overly focused on political power with too little attention being accorded to the country's black poor.
Zuma's presidency has been "marked by political problems, most notably a radical decline in the ANC's credibility. Zuma's own actions have also stripped the office he holds of dignity," wrote Pallo Jordan, a former minister of arts and culture, in an article published in BusinessDay newspaper. "Whoever the ANC membership elects in December will have to grasp the nettle of restoring the ANC's dented credibility and dignity to the office of the president."
Shadrack Gutto, a professor of African studies at the University of South Africa, said ordinary South Africans have come to expect little good from the ANC, whose top bosses have become fabulously wealthy even as millions of South Africans are mired in poverty. As some South African miners were striking for better pay, businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, an influential member of the ANC who had once been a touted as a future leader, was bidding millions of dollars for a prize buffalo.
"Every day there is a scandal here, a scandal there," Gutto said, adding that a time will come when the party will be thrown into "the dustbin of history."
Of the costly renovations to Zuma's private residence Gutto said: "It has to be investigated. It will be a scandal when the truth comes out."
Zuma, 70, remains popular in his Zulu homeland and many say he will win another term as ANC chief. He may be challenged by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. The speculation has been fueled by the release this week of an authorized Motlanthe biography, as well as a decision by ANC officials in Gauteng province, where both Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria are located, to back Motlanthe.