Turning Nkandla mountain into a molehill

It was all a very neatly managed affair to contain the controversy. Government announced on Saturday that Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi would on Sunday morning reveal the findings of an internal task team's investigation into renovations at President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla compound. The short notice meant that the issue could not be hyped up by the media, and much of South Africa would not be expecting breaking news on an issue of national importance on a Sunday morning.

Attention would further be deflected from the Nkandla issue by the fact that on Sunday evening, the national squad was playing a crucial match against Morocco in the African Cup of Nations, the results of which would determine if South Africa advanced to the quarterfinals of the tournament.

Everything fell into place. In the media conference, which was addressed by Nxesi, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, Zuma was predictably, absolved of any wrongdoing and "irregularities" were pinned on Public Works officials and procedures. The full investigation report by the task team is being kept under wraps, for "security" reasons.

The ANC duly issued a statement saying that both the president and the party had been vindicated by the report. The South African Communist Party backed this up, lashing out at the Democratic Alliance (DA) and "professional critics" for wanting to "throw mud" at Zuma and the ANC.

Zuma was, rather conveniently, out of the country at the African Union summit in Ethiopia and therefore shielded from the controversy. Zuma was delivering an address on reducing maternal mortality - showing he was caught up in much more important international work and not preoccupied by the scandal surrounding his private homestead. In any event, Nxesi, flanked by three other Cabinet heavies, were there to ride through the Nkandla storm.

And on Sunday night, the soccer held the attention of the nation as Bafana Bafana played secured a thrilling 2-2 draw against Morocco to advance to the next round. All of the unanswered questions and exasperation around the Nkandla whitewash, prevalent on social media platforms, were obscured by the exhilaration of the nail-biting match and South Africa's incredible comeback.

Of course the game was not scripted to drown out the Nkandla scandal, but whoever was involved in planning the Sunday morning media conference would have known that the news agenda for Monday would be split due to the Bafana Bafana match - whatever the outcome.

The key to the Nkandla whitewash was the finding that the Zuma compound was, in fact, a National Key Point. Once the task team confirmed that, the multi-million rand security upgrades could be justified, no matter how over the top and over-priced they were. Nxesi announced "there is no evidence that public money was spent to build the private residence of the president or that any house belonging to the president was built with public money." This means that technically there was no state funding for actual construction of Zuma's houses although government paid R206,420,644.37 towards the upgrade.

Nxesi said the security upgrades at Zuma's Nkandla home amounted to over R71 million (in excess of R20 million of this on consultancy fees) and operational needs for state departments amounted to R135,208,022. 58. More than R26 million went towards "variation orders for the whole project".

The investigation found that there were "a number of irregularities with regards to appointment of service providers and procurement of goods and services." These are being referred to the Special Investigation Unit, the Auditor General (AG) and the police for further investigation.

But the controversy, no matter how carefully managed, is far from over. Separate investigations into the Nkandla upgrade by the AG, Parliament's Standing Committee on Public Accounts and the Public Protector are still in progress.

The Public Protector investigation, expected by the end of March, was initiated by a complaint by DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, who on Sunday vowed to fight to make the task team report public.

"The 'task team' seems more determined to nail low ranking officials for this scandal than to answer legitimate concerns about how President Zuma could have allowed this to happen without taking action.

"The fact that this report will not be made public brings into question its independence and casts a further shadow on the entire scandal. I will therefore be calling on Minister Nxesi to table this report in Parliament for it to be fully scrutinised and debated. If he is not prepared to do so, Speaker Max Sisulu must intervene to ensure that this happens without delay," Mazibuko said.

Bantu Holomisa, leader of the United Democratic Movement, has called for an independent judicial commission of inquiry "where witnesses can testify so that the public can hear who was involved in 'upgrading' Nkandla and where the money came from."

But no matter how much the opposition shouts about this matter, there will clearly be a concerted effort by government to contain the fallout and get low-ranking officials to shoulder the blame. There has already been a mountain of evidence in the media showing exorbitant and frivolous costs on a private clinic for the Zuma family, a tuck shop and Astroturf for soccer fields, as well as proof that the president was aware of the upgrades.

Senior officials in government and the ANC know that the once these are confirmed by any of the other investigations, it will force a process they cannot control - as was the case in the police building lease saga which led to the axing of the former Public Works minister and national police commissioner.

So far, the South African public has been tolerant of all the abuses and overspending by the presidency and Cabinet which have been exposed over the past three years, including on houses, cars and travel. But the figures involved in the Nkandla upgrade have been so outrageous that there might be greater civil society action should evidence arise in any of the other investigations of wrongdoing at a political level.

There is a growing realisation that such shocking expenditure on the president's private home makes a mockery of the public's trust in its elected representatives, and that under the guise of security, South Africa is on a slippery slide towards becoming a kleptocracy.

Should the opposition, media organisations or civil society groups opt to go to court on the matter to force further scrutiny or punitive action, the state might find it difficult to continue to pull the wool over the public's eyes. It is very easy to interpret reports and tailor findings when the public has no direct access to them but documents and evidence before the glare of the courts could be extremely incriminating.

Despite the choreographed PR exercise on Sunday to show that Nkandla upgrade is just a storm in a teacup, the truths about the matter are still to be revealed. The stakes are high and Nkandlagate might yet prove to be the ultimate test of political accountability in South Africa.

This column appeared in The Daily maverick.