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Bill Waite on tone at the top: Jacob Zuma’s $23 million home improvement project

Four years after renovations to his Nkandla homestead were completed, South Africa President Jacob Zuma has finally agreed to pick up the tab — or some of it at least.

The change in his position follows the publication in March 2014 of a 443-page report by the Public Protector. The report concluded that Zuma’s conduct was “inconsistent with his office as a member of the cabinet.”

Zuma’s response was not immediate. It took until last week for the president’s office to state that:

While President Zuma remains critical of a number of factual aspects and legal conclusions in the report, he proposes a simple course to implement what the public protector recommended as remedial action contained in his report.

The remedial action proposed was that the president should reimburse the taxpayers for a “reasonable part” of those improvements. The president didn’t specify how much he would repay.

Jacob Zuma, the government, and his ANC party have always said the $23 million of improvements to the homestead were for security and for no other purpose, and that they were necessary and fitting for a president of the Republic of South Africa — forgetting perhaps that the government paid $22,000 to secure the home of FW de Klerk and $2.9 million on Nelson Mandela’s.

So which of the absolutely necessary security improvements should be paid for by President Zuma and which by the taxpayer?

Obviously the swimming pool — which was not in fact a swimming pool but an emergency water supply from which water could be pumped in case of a fire — should be paid for by the taxpayer.

As should the cattle pen, a necessary source of food and milk should the president’s homestead become surrounded while Mr. Zuma is in residence and unable to escape. 

Similarly the chicken run — a source of food and protection — South African chickens being renowned for their vocal prowess and like the geese of ancient Rome much better guards than dogs.

And the amphitheatre — no one can begrudge the president that — in times of crises it would be necessary to gather his four wives, 20 children and staff in one place to give them instructions on how to make themselves safe. 

So of the necessary security improvements, it seems obvious to the fair and impartial observer that President Zuma should be asked to pay very little at all.

Which is perhaps as well. Because even on a salary of $272,000 a year, it might take the president a while to come up with $23 million — unless of course he has some other source of funds.


Bill Waite is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog. He’s one of the founders of The Risk Advisory Group, established in 1997 with the objective of building Europe’s leading independent risk management consultancy. He serves as the group’s CEO and general counsel. He formerly practiced as a criminal barrister before joining the U.K. Serious Fraud Office in 1991 as a prosecutor. He can be contacted here.

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  1. Thanks for that great article. "Tone from the Top" is often a great "slogan" that can be used to mean the opposite, as we see here.

    Example 1 – SNC Lavalin was charged under the CFPOA (the Canadian equivalent of the FCPA). The tone from the CEO, Robert Card, was that the charges were false, that if the company is charged, that could result in loss of thousands of jobs (used much as a threat to the government) etc. Not exactly what we think of when we say "tone from the top".

    Example 2 – When Scotiabank in Canada was the subject of a CBC television documentary on corruption by the Bank in Mexico, resulting in murders. the "tone from the top" was to ignore it, and when pressed, to say something the answer was: "We did nothing wrong".

    Result – according to the CBC story, no charges laid, the offending employees were quietly dismissed and Scotiabank continues to be a well respected Canadian bank.

  2. Spot on, Bill, with lacerating irony. You've made my day.

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