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OPINION: Nkandla, a metaphor for enrichment

So Mac Maharaj thinks that President Zuma ought to have been prepared to pay back some money for the renovations to Nkandla.

There is something about being a retired politician that allows those free of the 'party line' to be able to speak their minds. Maharaj, however, quickly back-tracked, regretting his comments.

The back-tracking probably came after he realised that there might still be implications for his relationship with the ANC despite his retirement. One can only wonder what greater impact Maharaj's comments would have had, had he resigned as presidential spokesperson given the untenable level of spinning he was required to do on the Nkandla matter? But politics the world over is mostly about points of principle being trumped by opportunism and pragmatism, so really we should not be surprised.

Yet, what Maharaj's 'too little, too late' comment showed was that he might well not be the only ANC member feeling uncomfortable with the blatant excess which Nkandla was. The matter has now become a rather inconvenient truth for the ANC no matter how they wish to look at it and no matter how ANC MPs try to put a gloss on it. ANC deputy secretary-general Jesse Duarte says that Nkandla was not an election issue in 2014, so why bother about it ahead of the 2016 local government elections. She may well be right, yet her complacency is startling.

Pictures don't lie and the most disturbing aspect of the MPs' visit to Nkandla last week was not the grandeur of the president's homestead, but rather the strange neglect and apparent disinterest with which the buildings are tainted. One sees the now infamous swimming pool that cost millions of rands (far too small to be a fire-pool, mind), small and almost abandoned. Several security guard rondawels contained only mattresses, presumably for guards to sleep on? Others were still filled with sealed boxes. Containing what precisely? In one photograph that seemed to depict a reception area, a bored looking woman sits, whose job is unknown. And so it goes on.

So, on the one hand, there is a president who seemed miraculously oblivious to what was happening in his own backyard and who, supported by his party and Cabinet colleagues, does not find the expenditure problematic. There is too the undermining of the public protector's office, a constitutionally mandated institution that found that there was expenditure on a grand scale. Leaving those constitutional and other implications aside, there is something else about the photographs that leave one with a deep sense of discomfort.

It is a mixture of a complete disregard for citizens and also spending for its sake. What falls apart can after all simply be replaced, thanks to the never-ending supply from the fiscus. Nkandla tells us everything we need to know about President Zuma and his carelessness with public trust.

The homestead can be seen as nothing more than personal enrichment for him and the members of his village. No doubt it will continue to fall prey to a general lack of care and appreciation for things of value, as the haggling about Zuma's enrichment continues.

But there is a great deal of carelessness going on, if not only in Duarte's comments about the electorate and Nkandla. She would do well to notice the violent protests around the country that speak of a country in which all is not well. Nelson Mandela Bay will be hotly contested in 2016 and the DA has made no secret that it fancies its chances there. The ANC will need more proper intelligence and polling data to pull its electoral rabbit out of the hat. Of course, it has the benefits of incumbency and no one should under-estimate its ability to campaign and speak to the grassroots of our country, yet it should not be complacent.

In the meantime too, the country continues to face load shedding in the heart of winter in a resigned and resolute manner. We are a country of shoulder shruggers. No matter what seems to come our way, our levels of tolerance for incompetent and ineffective government simply increase. This week, engineering firm Gibb warned of 'water-shedding' in the future. Yet, we should not be surprised because researchers across the country have long warned of a water crisis facing us. Yet, despite our national development plan and all the policy niceties, water shedding may become a reality. This week's ANC legkotla delivered nothing new in the face of job losses specifically in the mining industry, save the tired idea of a state-owned mining company.

Quite how the ANC foresees 'radical economic transformation' in an environment in which there are power cuts and water shortages is unknown. Gibb cited a 'lack of political will' to deal with the water crisis.

In all of this, our president seems largely absent, unable to lead in any meaningful way on the crucial economic policy and other choices we face. Yet, later this year, South Africa will be present at the UN in New York in the major discussion on the new sustainable development goals.

All's the pity that sustainability is not the language of our government. If it was speaking the language of sustainability, it would deal with our economic challenges in a coherent manner, allow the brightest and the best to run our parastatals and deal with the rot in local government, among other things. So Gwede Mantashe can call for the crisis in parastatals to be resolved 'urgently', but what does this actually mean? To actually solve it though, the ANC would need to put South Africa first and trim the fat of cadre deployment.

Our economic woes are not easily solvable but we could be doing better, and the ANC and government should wake up to the reality that business as usual might be an underwhelming response to the crisis of unemployment and inequality and the social strife which accompanies these twin challenges.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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