Zuma turns his rural home into a $23m palace

President faces fresh controversy as public foots bill for a helipad, playground and bunker

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The Independent Online

A helipad with an underground tunnel linking it to the main residence; his and hers bathrooms and 10 houses for security guards are among recent upgrades to South African President Jacob Zuma's rural homestead. The Nkandla residence, in one of the poorest areas of the country, will soon have a playground, a visitors' centre and a bunker reached by twin elevators.

The bill runs to at least $23m (£14m) in taxpayers' money. Questions over the lavish spending in KwaZulu Natal province come as Mr Zuma faces a fight for his political life and widespread unrest over corruption in the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

The President's aides have responded to questions over the cost of the project, dubbed "Zumaville" in the local media, by insisting that his family was paying for the bulk of costs. However, documents leaked to the City Press newspaper show that the public purse is covering 95 per cent.

When questioned by reporters this week, Mr Zuma insisted he was unaware of how much the upgrade was costing and referred queries to the Minister of Public Works. The minister said the newspaper that printed the documents should be prosecuted for revealing "state secrets".

Zumaville presents an uncomfortable contrast with the rest of Nkandla – one of the five poorest areas in KwaZulu Natal, with unemployment at 90 per cent.

The 70-year-old leader has been accused of being out of touch with ordinary South Africans and was criticised as "aloof" for his recent handling of the police killings of 34 striking platinum miners in Marikana. Wildcat strikes continue across the country, with the former ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, calling for mines to be nationalised and Mr Zuma to be ousted.

Mr Zuma, who took power by toppling Thabo Mbeki four years ago, is expected to face a challenge from his Vice President, Kgalema Mothlanthe, at a party congress in December.

The President has been dogged by corruption charges throughout his political career. The money to purchase the Nkandla residence reportedly came from his business partner, Schabir Shaik, who was convicted of corruption and fraud in a case linked to a controversial arms deal. Mr Zuma, who was Vice President at the time, escaped related charges after taking the top office.

Since then, Mr Zuma and the ANC have been accused of escalating corruption. Mr Malema, who helped oust Mr Mbeki while a Zuma supporter, faces allegations of fraud. A small circle of ANC-linked black businessmen have amassed vast fortunes, with Cyril Ramaphosa – once a leadership contender – recently criticised for spending millions of dollars on a prize bull.

A rash of political murders has been blamed on local officials turning on each other in a scramble for money and patronage. In Mr Zuma's home province, 38 ANC members have been killed since February last year.