JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — To most South Africans, it is an unimaginable expense: $28 million in upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s rural homestead, with taxpayers footing the bill.
The revamp of Zuma’s sprawling private compound at Nkandla, deep in the countryside of KwaZulu-Natal province, has included a helipad, fencing, bulletproof glass, two AstroTurf soccer fields for security guards, and elevators to carry Zuma and his “very, very important visitors” between underground bunkers and the main house.
But while the president maintains these upgrades are required for security reasons, this has failed to quell South African outrage over the high cost of the project, along with further revelations that tens of millions more in state funding has been spent on roads in the area.
The opposition Democratic Alliance has pushed repeatedly for a parliamentary debate on what has been dubbed “Nkandlagate.” The country’s public protector, a government investigator, is probing the cost of the upgrades, which were revealed in public works documents leaked to a local newspaper. A parliamentary committee has pledged to make inquiries.
Asked about Nkandla during a briefing with foreign correspondents this week, Zuma did not attempt to deny the cost of the upgrade. Instead, he talked vaguely about “exaggerations” and then claimed that the renovation was not his decision.
“Government came to say, ‘As a president we need in your residence security features,’” Zuma said. “I’ve built my own home. They’ve come in to do things which they said are required for a president.”
Zuma, 70, a polygamist with four current wives and at least 20 children, has official residences in Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban, in addition to his Nkandla homestead.
Helen Zille, leader of the Democratic Alliance, called the expenditures on Zuma’s personal residence “not only morally wrong and unjustifiable given our country’s social needs, but … also possibly illegal.”
“The government has even tried to justify the expenditure for vague security reasons, hiding behind provisions in the National Key Points Act,” Zille said in a statement, referring to apartheid-era secrecy legislation.
South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal countries, with millions living in poverty and post-apartheid frustrations regularly boiling over into violent protests. Critics of the ruling African National Congress, or ANC, say the party and its newly wealthy leaders have lost touch with ordinary South Africans.
In speaking with foreign journalists, Zuma highlighted the progress made since the ANC took power in 1994, while also admitting there is more work to be done, particularly in improving basic services, such as water, electricity and toilets, in many South African communities.
“The backlogs are huge and our people have been waiting for decades during the apartheid period for their lives to improve,” Zuma said.
The latest census results, released Tuesday, revealed the stark economic divisions that remain. Black South African households have seen average incomes grow by 169 percent in the past decade, but whites still take home six times more money.
And while the number of South Africans without access to basic services has been halved since 2001, nearly 2 million people still live in shacks, an increase of more than 100,000.
The fallout over Nkandla comes at a politically sensitive time for Zuma, who is standing for re-election as ANC president at a leadership conference in December in the city of Mangaung.
Zuma is already accused of lacking in leadership for his handling of the Marikana tragedy, when 34 striking miners were shot dead by police in a single afternoon in August, and the subsequent crisis in the country’s mining industry.
After months of wildcat strikes at some of South Africa’s biggest gold and platinum mines, two rating agencies have lowered the country’s credit rating and warned of the social, political and economic challenges going forward. Economic growth has been revised downward to just 2.5 percent for this year.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, a potential rival to Zuma for party leadership, this week described the upcoming Mangaung congress as a tipping point for the ANC, which he said must start getting the country back in order.
The pricey upgrades to Nkandla are now under investigation by Thuli Madonsela, the country’s no-nonsense public prosecutor who is also looking into the 2 billion rand ($230 million) development of a town some 2 miles from Zuma’s homestead.