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Zuma must repay 'unlawful, excessive' home renovations: ombudsman

A view of the controversial homestead of South African President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla on January 21, 2014
A view of the controversial homestead of South African President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla on January 21, 2014

South Africa's public ombudsman said Wednesday that some of the $23 million taxpayer-funded refurbishments at President Jacob Zuma's luxurious residence were unlawful and ordered him to repay part of the cost.

"Some of these measures can be legitimately classified as unlawful and the acts involved constitute improper conduct and maladministration," Thuli Madonsela said in a much-awaited report released just weeks ahead of the May presidential election.

The scathing report, titled 'Secure in Comfort' - which also implicated several ministers - found that Zuma violated the executive ethics code by failing to protect state resources.

The leading opposition Democratic Alliance said in light of the "damning findings", it will urgently initiate impeachment proceedings against Zuma.

The ombudsman ordered that Zuma pay a "reasonable percentage" of the cost of the renovations not related to security at his sprawling homestead.

However the exact amount to be reimbursed was not disclosed and Madonsela said it would be up to the Treasury to determine a figure.

A view of the controversial homestead of South African President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla on January 21, 2014
A view of the controversial homestead of South African President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla on January 21, 2014

Zuma's residence in the rural southern village of Nkandla cost South African taxpayers 246 million rand ($23 million) in a project touted as a security upgrade.

Some additions include a visitors' centre, swimming pool, an amphitheatre and even a chicken coop.

"The expenditure incurred by the state... went beyond what was reasonably required for the president's security, was unconsciously excessive and caused a misappropriation of funds," the report said.

- Opulence on a grand scale -

Madonsela also ordered Zuma to "reprimand the ministers involved for the appalling manner in which the Nkandla project was handled and state funds were abused".

Zuma, leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is running for re-election in South Africa's May 7 vote and his popularity has been taking a bash.

South African President Jacob Zuma speaks during a press conference in Pretoria on October 14, 2013
South African President Jacob Zuma speaks during a press conference in Pretoria on October 14, 2013

The vote promises to be the toughest electoral challenge yet for Zuma and his ruling ANC party that has won each election since the end of apartheid in 1994 by a landslide.

A survey conducted late last year showed that support for the ANC had dropped by 10 percentage points from a year earlier to 53 percent.

The splurge on the house - nestled in the verdant hills of Zuma's political stronghold -- has caused anger in a country where there is widespread poverty and where 10 million people live on welfare.

On average a South African worker earns roughly $11,000 a year.

In contrast to Zuma's luxury lifestyle, some of his neighbours do without electricity or running water. Nearby residents collect water from communal taps and streams which often run dry.

The ombudsman said the Nkandla project constitutes "opulence on a grand scale."

South African Bhekekile Ndlovu closes the gate to her parcel of land directly opposite the lavish residence of South African President in Nkandla on January 22, 2014
South African Bhekekile Ndlovu closes the gate to her parcel of land directly opposite the lavish residence of South African President in Nkandla on January 22, 2014

It "leaves one with the impression of excessive and unconscionable 'Rolls Royce' security constituting an island in a sea of poverty and paucity of public infrastructure."

"The manner in which the Nkandla project was administered and implemented gave me the impression of a toxic concoction of a lack of leadership, a lack of control and focused self-interest," said Madonsela

The home, which Zuma rarely visits as he has official residences in Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban -- also boasts its own helipad.

Madonsela said the upgrades were by far the most expensive for a sitting head of state.

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