Cries of cronyism as public billed for 'Zumaville'
YESTERDAY MARKED the deadline for town planners to submit their plans assessing the physical and economic viability of building South Africa’s first new town since the end of apartheid.
Such a proposal – to build a €200 million town in a rural part of KwaZulu-Natal province – would usually be hailed a positive event in South Africa, given that the province is sorely in need of development, investment and employment.
But since word of the proposed new urban centre was brought to the public’s attention a week ago, the project has been dogged by controversy and viewed with suspicion by many South Africans.
Rural development is a government priority, and successive African National Congress party administrations have promised to invest in rural areas, especially the former homelands – where black people were corralled and forced to live during the apartheid era – due to their neglect.
However, the problem with the emerging town, according to its critics, is that it will be built in President Jacob Zuma’s home village of Nkandla, just 3.2kms away from his palatial rural homestead.
The issue for the public though, is that half of the estimated €200 million construction bill will be paid for by the taxpayer, leading to inevitable cries that Zuma is indulging in nepotism and patronage in a year when he is seeing re-election as ANC president.
Nkandla is a typical rural South African village, with dusty streets and homes built in the age-old African way – thatched or corrugated iron roofing covers traditional rounded wall structures made with home-made bricks and mud.
There are basic government buildings scattered among the isolated rural homesteads to tend to the needs of the tens of thousands who live in the municipal area. But save for its famous son, there is little that makes Nkandla stand out from hundreds of similar villages across the province.
According to government documents seen by the Mail Guardian newspaper, the new development, dubbed “Zumaville”, would cover 200-hectares of land, and accommodate up to 10,000 middle-class homes.
The plan is to replace the dusty roads with tree-lined streets and covered walkways that connect newly built government facilities that include offices for the departments of social development and home affairs.
New community facilities are also proposed, including a leisure centre with pool and tennis courts, a library and a theatre.
To stimulate the local economy, there are plans to build light industrial units and an agricultural market, and a new boarding school. A wind farm is also proposed, reducing reliance on South Africa’s hard-pressed electricity power grid.
Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj has responded to criticism of the project, calling it reckless and not factual. “Rural development is one of the priorities of the government and is not restricted to one area,” he told the Mail Guardian last week.
But the president’s defence against the accusations made by his detractors isn’t helped by the fact he chairs the Masibambisane Rural Development Initiative, the body said to be the project’s main facilitator.
His close connection to the Masibambisane initiative prompted the main opposition Democratic Alliance’s parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko to call for the ANC to justify the Zumaville project given that unemployment and poverty remains high right across KwaZulu-Natal.
“How can Zuma explain spending so much money on a single project while many people across the province find themselves without even the most basic services,” Mazibuko asked.
The Democratic Alliance’s first black parliamentary leader also said this week she would ask parliament to investigate the allocation of €100 million of taxpayers’ money to the project as well as submit written questions to the president about the amounts being spent in Nkandla.
“This is cronyism and nepotism of the worst kind,” she said. “While the Democratic Alliance supports all efforts to support rural development, it must be done in an open, equitable way, with public money spent wisely.”
Afrikaner lobby group AfriForum has also waded in, asking the public protector to investigate the decision to build Zumaville and whether it amounted to Zuma’s home region getting preferential treatment.