King Goodwill Zwelithini's R1-billion palace splurge

21 May 2017 - 02:05 By JAN-JAN JOUBERT and BONGANI MTHETHWA

Zulu monarch’s ’cultural precinct’ raises spectre of a ’new Nkandla’

Taxpayers are facing a fresh government overspending scandal - and this one could be even costlier than Nkandla.

A shock report seen by the Sunday Times has warned that a new facility being built for Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini near Nongoma could cost R1-billion, about eight times more than the R129-million approved for the first phase of the project.

As part of the project, intended to improve the reed-dance venue, contractors also intended replacing "poor soil" in the area with "imported suitable soil".

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While the Zulu royal house has expressed shock at the bill, King Zwelithini is insisting the work will go ahead.

A report by Gobodo Forensic & Investigative Accounting tabled in parliament this week revealed that, as with Nkandla, prices have been inflated and consultants charged as much as 200% more than the usual industry rates.

The initial cost of the project was put at R225-million in 2014, and a budget of R129-million was approved by the national Department of Arts and Culture.

The project has now been put on hold after Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa appointed the auditing firm to probe allegations of wrongdoing.

King Zwelithini is already the beneficiary of generous state funding - he has been paid about R550-million in the past decade alone. The most recent royal budget revealed that the Royal Household Trust, which falls under the KwaZulu-Natal premier's office, would receive R58.9-million for the 2017-18 financial year.

The Department of Arts and Culture embarked on the Nongoma project after a request from the king in 2013. It is intended to provide accommodation, bathing facilities and toilets for thousands of women who attend the annual reed-dance ceremony at the king's palace, Enyokeni.

There are concerns about the safety of the young women, who are forced to bathe in the open and sleep on buses and taxis. Incidents of sexual harassment have been reported.

Even though the project was in its early stages when it was halted, the report revealed overspending of more than R2.2-million above the approved budget.

When the Sunday Times team visited the site this week there was not much to show for the more than R130-million that has already been spent.

The only visible progress is an incomplete VIP area with a planned capacity of 2,000 guests, a new razor-wire perimeter fence and a line of tall concrete walls near the main entrance.

The first phase of the project was to include construction of the first 12 of a planned 16 sleeping areas as well as ablution facilities.

block_quotes_start The king has always said that he is against corruption and he has said that if there are people found to have done anything wrong with regard to the project they should be dealt with block_quotes_end

The Gobodo report, presented by Vusithemba Ndima, acting director-general of the Department of Arts and Culture, said the Independent Development Trust (IDT) predicted that should construction continue at the current scope and costs, the project would cost R1,040,317,358.

Zulu royal family spokesman Prince Thulani Zulu said the king was shocked at the cost. "When it was started it had three phases that were going to cost R300-million," he said.

He said Mthethwa had told the king the project had been halted because of irregularities.

"The king has always said that he is against corruption and he has said that if there are people found to have done anything wrong with regard to the project they should be dealt with."

He said Mthethwa had assured the king that work would resume once investigations had been completed.

"A feasibility study is being conducted and the project will not stop. As the royal family we are very sad that the project has been left just like that. But there are meetings about the way forward," said Zulu.

The report said that from the start proper processes were not followed. No plans existed and construction continued while they were being drawn up. No feasibility study was conducted, no business plan existed and no land surveying was done.

Even though the land on which the project was being built belonged to the Ingonyama Trust and not the state, no lease agreement was signed.

Trust chairman Judge Jerome Ngwenya said the trust was only contacted after construction had begun.

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"We never knew about it. We were never contacted by IDT but were only contacted later by the Department of Arts and Culture. By that time the project was well under way.

"We nonetheless informed and advised them of the processes they needed to follow and comply with [when building on Ingonyama land].

"However, they have not come back to us about those processes. That was some time last year, I think," said Ngwenya.

Arts and culture spokesman Peter Mbelengwa had not responded to questions at the time of going to press.

IDT spokeswoman Thabisile Dlomo said she was unable to respond to questions sent to her.

The report revealed that R11-million had been paid to a contractor for items that did not contribute to the construction of the reed-dance precinct - but the company did work on the king's palace.

It found that a consultant had inflated a statutory fee by R3-million, while a construction monitoring fee was inflated by R450,000. In another instance an engineering fee was overstated by R5-million. In total, R20-million had been paid to consultants by the time Mthethwa slammed on the brakes.

The money spent so far was transferred from the capital works budget. But the report revealed that this was done without approval from the National Treasury.

The report recommended that criminal charges be laid against the former director-general of the Department of Arts and Culture, Sibusiso Xaba, and other senior managers. Xaba was suspended when Mthethwa launched the investigation in 2014. He left the position in 2015. Attempts to contact him failed.

DA MP Allen Grootboom said the scandal "will make the Nkandla presidential homestead look like a soup kitchen".

ANC MP Xoliswa Tom, chairwoman of the parliamentary portfolio committee on arts and culture, said her committee believed anyone found guilty of wrongdoing on the project should face strict consequences.

"As a committee we are still trying to ascertain exactly what happened. What is clear is that the correct processes were not followed with the money spent, so there must be consequences," said Tom. - Additional Reporting by Nathi Olifant

joubertj@sundaytimes.co.za and mthethwab@sundaytimes.co.za

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