JOHANNESBURG: South African President Jacob Zuma is embroiled in a new scandal over costly additions to his private home at the taxpayers' expense.
The revelations of the $23 million renovation of Zuma's rural compound, dubbed "Zumaville" in the local press, come before the ANC's 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 credibility has already been shaken by the recent police killings of 34 striking platinum miners in the continuing wave of ongoing wildcat strikes.
Zuma, who has led South Africa since 2009, is widely seen by strikers across the country as aloof to their concerns and has been criticized by many for not showing the political muscle needed to resolve the ongoing strikes that threaten to paralyze the country's crucial mining sector. Firebrand politician Julius Malema, ousted this year as ANC Youth League leader, says Zuma should not be allowed another term in office.
Now the president faces more harsh publicity over the massive facelift he has given to his countryside home using government funds. The government has refused to disclose the precise cost of the work, but 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 taxpayers, insisting the project was authorized by the Ministry of Works and motivated by security concerns.
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 could not confirm the cost but said the matter would be investigated for any "inexplicable overruns on costs," according to the South African Press Association.
Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, said last week that work on Zuma's residence was similar to that done of those of former presidents.
Whatever the cost or extent of the refurbishment, the project has become a full-blown scandal for Zuma, but he has survived others such as a damaging rape trial and corruption charges.
This latest furore, however, comes at a critical time for Zuma, who is being criticized from within the ANC leadership.
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."
Zuma, 70, remains popular in his Zulu homeland and many say he will win another term as ANC chief. He may be challenged by Kgalema Motlanthe, the discreet deputy president. 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 to back Motlanthe. Motlanthe himself appears to be a reluctant challenger, and has refused to confirm or deny anything in public.
These days speculation over what will happen at the ANC conference, to be held in Mangaung, casts a big shadow over public life in South Africa, and some critics say the jostling for influential positions highlights what is wrong with the party once led by Nelson Mandela: Too much focus on political power and too little attention to the needs of the country's black poor.
Shadrack Gutto, a professor of African studies at the University of South Africa, said that ordinary South Africans had come to expect little good from the ANC, whose top bosses have become fabulously wealthy even as millions of South Africans wallow in poverty. As some South African miners were striking for better pay, businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, an influential member of the ANC who has 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, who took ANC power in 2007 after ousting Mbeki at a party leadership conference similar to the upcoming one, occupies a decidedly controversial place in South African politics. He is polygamous, in keeping with his Zulu culture, the husband of four wives and the father of 21 children, including one he acknowledged to have sired in 2010 with a woman who is not one of his wives. In 2006 he angered AIDS educators, and has since been widely ridiculed, for saying during his rape trial that he took a shower to avoid catching AIDS after having unprotected sex with a woman he knew to be HIV-infected. More than 5 million South Africans were infected with AIDS at the time, and the country remains among the top ten countries worst hit by the disease.
For Zuma's critics, the scandals swirling around him have turned him into a laughingstock and stripped him of any credibility. Ironically, Zuma, while trying to censor a controversial painting that depicted his genitals early this year, argued that Brett Murray's "The Spear" violated his constitutional right to dignity.