JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — South African President Jacob Zuma did not expect the refrain of his re-election campaign to become "If you're number one, you get to drive the gravy train." But those are the words of a popular parody song that tears down the president as he tries to get himself re-elected in May. Zuma is immersed in a scandal over large-scale improvements he made to his private home with public funds.
As South Africa faces a critical election next month, there is one unlikely word on many South Africans’ lips: Nkandla. That’s the name of Zuma’s private home in rural KwaZulu-Natal province.
The president is running for his second term as head of the ruling African National Congress, the party that has held power since the first post-apartheid elections in 1994.
Last month, South Africa’s anti-corruption czar said the president committed an ethical lapse, however, when he used about $23 million in government money for what the president described as security upgrades to his Nkandla homestead.
The report said the upgrades -- which include a swimming pool, a cattle enclosure, a chicken run a visitors’ center and an amphitheater -- went beyond what was reasonably required for a president’s security. The anti-corruption office has demanded that Zuma repay some of the costs.
Opposition politician Mamphela Ramphele said the Nkandla affair has exposed a serious flaw in the ruling party. “The ANC is in the death grip of corrupt, greedy and arrogant people who don’t actually see that they are destroying this beautiful country and its resources.”
Nkandla is not the president’s first brush with scandal. He has already weathered a previous corruption case in which the charges were dropped. He was also acquitted of rape in another case.
But somehow, the house affair has become a national joke, with endless pop-culture references and parodies. Perhaps no one has exploited it to greater comic effect than political analyst Chester Missing.
Missing is actually a latex puppet -- operated by a man named Conrad Koch -- and one of the stars of the nation’s top parody news show, Late Night News. VOA News asked Koch to explain Nkandla to us.
“Nkandla. It’s like the White House, but more Zulu. And for one guy, and no one else gets to stay there," said Koch. "No, our president spent a lot of money on his own house that came from taxpayer money. Allegedly he didn’t spend the money, other people did. And they say it’s for security. But it’s very hard to explain how a chicken run, a place where you keep chickens, is a security feature. Because I don’t think the chickens know kung-fu.”
It sometimes seems the only person NOT talking about Nkandla is Zuma himself. He has said he wants to wait until the outcome of another investigation into the affair, and there have been several.
A prominent ANC member, Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba, said the party around Zuma is not so focused on the scandal.
“To generalize as if all of us are preoccupied with the Nkandla debate and other things, is really unfortunate," said Gigaba. "The fact of the matter is that the DA is preoccupied with Nkandla; the rest of us, or some of us are talking about our policies and our plans and what we seek to do over the next five to 20 years.”
But those policies are being drowned out by pop culture.
A man who calls himself only “Nkandla Style” has done a spoof song based on the affair. It’s based on a Korean-pop hit, and this version has hit the big-time by South African standards -- more than 200,000 people have listened to it since it was released at the beginning of the month.
The lyrics neatly sum up how many South Africans view this scandal.: “Yes, I’m swimming in your money but I don’t know / I don’t know / Skinny dipping with all my honeys / Cool in the pool / My fire pool / We’re gonna party party Marco Polo Yo Yo Yo Yo Yo / … Nkandla style.”
South Africa will find out who’s laughing after May 7, when the nation votes.