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South African president cleared in ‘swimming pool’ scandal

South Africa president Jacob Zuma spent around $24 million on upgrades at his private residence © AFP

South Africa president Jacob Zuma spent around $24 million on upgrades at his private residence © AFP

CAPE TOWN, MAY 28 – South African President Jacob Zuma will not have to repay any of the public money spent on upgrades to his private residence that included a swimming pool and chicken run, the police minister announced Thursday.

Finding that all the upgrades were for security purposes, Nkosinathi Nhleko told a news conference: “The state president is therefore not liable to pay for any of the security features.”

The spending of some $24 million on improvements at Zuma’s private residence at Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal province has been one of the biggest scandals dogging the embattled head of state.

Last year, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, the country’s ombudswoman, found that Zuma and his family had “unduly benefited” from the work on his home, which also included cattle enclosure, and recommended that he repay some of the money.

Under public pressure, Zuma then nominated the minister of police — who is a Zuma appointee — to determine how much he should repay.

In a two-hour news conference Nhleko made a painstaking — and at times bizarre — examination of the findings of three probes into the matter.

He concluded that the swimming pool was a “firepool” needed to fight any blaze at the mainly-thatched compound, while the cattle kraal and chicken run were necessary to prevent the animals tripping motion detectors as they roamed about.

A visitor’s centre was also a security feature, he ruled, and what the public protector described as an amphitheatre was in fact a series of terraced retaining walls.

The minister showed the press conference several videos to support the findings, including one of a firehose pumping water from the swimming pool.

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The intense scrutiny of the homestead forced by public anger over the expenditure has ironically given rise to what must be one of the most minute public examinations of security systems at the residence of any head of state.

The amount of $24 million would buy several of South Africa’s most luxurious homes in the economic capital Johannesburg or on the scenic Cape coast.

Architects and contractors have been accused of inflating costs by Zuma’s supporters, while critics say he could not have been unaware of what was happening at his own home.

Parliament collapsed in chaos more than once over the issue, with radical opposition lawmakers on their feet and demanding that Zuma “Pay back the money”.

Even with this ruling, those demands are unlikely to stop, and the scandal has tarnished the reputation of the African National Congress, which brought liberation hero Nelson Mandela to power when apartheid ended more than 20 years ago.

Zuma has also denied that he had interfered with police and prosecuting authorities to ensure there were no further investigations into 700 other corruption charges against him, which were dropped shortly before he became president in 2009.

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