A desperate President Jacob Zuma has turned to one of South Africa's top legal minds in an attempt to get the scourge of Nkandla off his back.
Zuma roped in leading silk Jeremy Gauntlett SC, who charges about R50, 000 a day.
Gauntlett has been rejected five times by the Judicial Service Commission for the position of judge - twice for the Constitutional Court and three times for the high court.
The legal opinion Zuma received from Gauntlett is behind his dramatic U-turn this week.
On Tuesday night, just a week before a Constitutional Court showdown between Zuma's legal team and lawyers representing the DA and EFF, Zuma proposed to pay for the undue benefits he gained from the Nkandla upgrades.
Since public protector Thuli Madonsela released her report "Secure in Comfort" in 2014, Zuma has consistently defied opposition calls to comply with her directive that he cover a reasonable amount of the R246-million spent on his private home.
Highly placed legal sources said Zuma has been growing increasingly frustrated that the Nkandla issue has not been finalised. He is understood to be furious with some former ministers, since shifted to other portfolios, as well as many of his present advisers. He is also angry at having to face the Constitutional Court case on Nkandla on Tuesday.
The offer to pay is widely seen as a way of taking the heat off himself ahead of his state of the nation address to parliament this week.
Zuma is also facing serious opposition on other fronts. He has faced heavy criticism about his abortive shuffle of finance ministers and has been criticised by Cosatu for the government's new pension legislation. Criticism of his relationship with the Gupta family has added to his discomfort.
Casualties of the Nkandla debacle
Scroll over the red dots on the images above to find out more about Nkandla's casualties
Zuma insisted that Gauntlett be summoned for a talk about the Nkandla matter. The two men met, along with Zuma's usual legal team, including his attorney Michael Hulley, in January.
Asked if he was on Zuma's team on the Nkandla issue, Gauntlett yesterday said: "It is not for me to say for whom I am acting. Why don't you ask the Presidency ... I am afraid you will have to go the long route."
Gauntlett's appointment has irked black advocates, with Advocates for Transformation national chairman Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza saying this proved that the Presidency has no faith in black advocates.
Zuma has been under pressure in recent weeks as allies raised the matter of the undue influence of the Gupta family on the president
"This guy virtually runs the country. If it's [Sudanese president Omar] al-Bashir it's going to be Gauntlett. If it's Marikana to negotiate with families of injured and arrested miners it is going to be Gauntlett ... If it's Julius Malema on the Nkandla matter, it is going to be Gauntlett," Ntsebeza said.
Gauntlett is said to have told Zuma to stop involving himself in "peripheral legal action" - and to stop fighting with Madonsela.
He told Zuma that he could fight the Constitutional Court case, and crash and burn - or he could be bold, accept that there had indeed been a mess-up regarding Nkandla and make an offer beforehand to calm the storm.
Detailed questions to the Presidency regarding Gauntlett's involvement went unanswered. Zuma's spokesman, Bongani Majola, instead sent a transcript of Hulley's statement on the matter.
Speculation about Gauntlett's possible involvement in the Nkandla matter started after he was spotted at an ANC national executive committee lekgotla in Irene, Gauteng, last week. NEC members confirmed that Gauntlett was at the lekgotla and met with Zuma on the sidelines.
The advocate is reported to have pointed out to Zuma that Madonsela's report absolved Zuma of personal wrongdoing and said he merely had to pay back the state for certain features at Nkandla that were not related to security.
The Sunday Times was told that Gauntlett argued that a cost for these features had to be fairly computed - and that Zuma should then get on with paying the money.
Gauntlett accepted that Zuma genuinely did not know about the non-security features. Zuma is believed to have told his senior counsel: "I had a perfectly good chicken run. Why did they change it?"
Scroll over the red dots on the images above to find out more about Nkandla's heroes
The same source said that, unlike the DA and EFF, the public protector had been very positive about Zuma's legal offer and was due to meet him this weekend.
The EFF and DA want the Constitutional Court to reaffirm the powers of the public protector and to have her findings made binding. They also want Zuma to fulfil his constitutional obligations by implementing Madonsela's report.
While his offer to pay back some of the money will not help Zuma legally, his move was seen within ANC circles as a positive move to disarm the opposition, which wields the issue as a political weapon, and came as a relief to the party and its allies.
Zuma has been under pressure in recent weeks as allies raised the matter of the undue influence of the Gupta family on the president and some of his cabinet ministers.
Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini commended Zuma's offer, while the ANC in Gauteng expressed relief as it believed the Nkandla matter would have affected its fortunes at the polls.
Five years of denial, cover-ups and bluster
September 1 2010: In reply to a parliamentary question, the then minister of public works, Geoff Doidge, states: "The Department of Public Works has not spent any money on the upgrade of the president's Nkandla home." The reply puts the cost of upgrades at R6.4-million.
April 12 2011: In reply to another parliamentary question about the Nkandla upgrades, Mahlangu-Nkabinde says she cannot disclose information "due to security reasons".
October 5 2012: In a statement, Mahlangu-Nkabinde's successor, Thulas Nxesi, states that due to public pressure some details of the upgrades will be revealed, but without giving the costs. He says the residence has been declared a national key point.
October 11 2012: In a statement the Presidency denies that President Jacob Zuma derived any private benefit from the work. "The Zuma family will continue to pay for all the upgrades in Nkandla which are not linked to state security imperatives."
November 12 2012: Speaking during question time in parliament, Zuma says: "A wrong impression is being given in the country that government has built a home for me. It is not true.
"People are speaking without knowing. It is unfair and I do not want to use harsher words because you believe that people like me cannot build a home.
"The buildings and every room we use in that residence was built by ourselves as family. I took the decision to extend my home and I built more rondavels. I engaged the bank and I am still paying the bond."
November 20 2012: In a statement, the Presidency confirms Zuma has a personal bond for Nkandla.
January 27 2013: The minister of pubic works reveals that the cost of security upgrades at Nkandla is R206-million.
March 20 2013: In reply to a parliamentary question, Zuma denies any knowledge of the security upgrades.
December 19 2013: The final report of a ministerial task team investigation into the security upgrades says Zuma did not ask for security installations and "no state funds were used to build the president's private residence".
February 16 2014: In an interview with eNCA, the president says of the government's role: "They came in, in the middle [of his personal upgrades], to deal with what they called security features. Since this was now to be the homestead of the president they needed specific things. That is what the money was spent on - not upgrading my home."
March 30 2014: At a rally in Gugulethu, Cape Town, Zuma says: "I did not use the public's money in Nkandla. What I'm saying is I'm not guilty."
April 2 2014: In a letter to the speaker of parliament, in response to the public protector's report on Nkandla, Zuma denies any wrongdoing, stating he was "not intimately involved with the finer details".
May 5 2014: Speaking at a breakfast briefing, Zuma says: "I am not worried about Nkandla, it's not my problem. Nor is it a problem of the people who have been campaigning ... I think the people who have been talking about it is you guys, the media, and the opposition. People don't think Nkandla is an issue to affect ANC voters."
August 14 2014: In a letter to the speaker, Zuma denies any personal wrongdoing.
December 21 2014: In an interview on SABC, Zuma says "The reality is, the president did absolutely nothing wrong. There is not a single one [report] that found anything wrong that the president had done."
March 10 2015: Speaking during question time in parliament, the president states: "Never have I ever thought on the date when I will pay back the money. Firstly, there is no money that I am going to be paying back without a determination by those who are authorised to do so, as recommended by the public protector."
May 15 2015: Speaking during question time, Zuma says: "Nkandla has been investigated by three agencies. There was a government task team that investigated Nkandla, there was the SIU [Special Investigating Unit] and the public protector. With regards to the public protector, she made specific recommendations and submitted the report in parliament.
"The involvement of government in me building my house and the security features is government policy and there are departments responsible for that. And that's what they did. And no one has found that they did anything wrong."
What ANC MPs said in defence of the president, then and now
Then: "We expressed our disgust at the level people can undermine this country. President Zuma didn't elect himself, the majority ... said they want him to lead ... and he must be protected as our president, it's not his choice."
On Friday: "No comment. I have not had the opportunity to study the president's statement."
Then: "We should not, and cannot, apologise when we say the report of the public protector . .. has misled the nation."
On Friday: "The case is before the court so I cannot comment."
Then: "We must be very careful before we can say there are serious allegations against the president."
On Friday: "I can't comment because it's before the Constitutional Court. The [Nkandla ad hoc] report speaks for itself and the recommendations there are based on fact."
- Compiled by Gareth van Onselen
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article we incorrectly stated that former minister of public works Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde said in 2010 her department had not spent any money on the upgrade at Nkandla. The comment should have been attributed to her predecessor, Geoff Doidge. We regret the error.