Publication: Noseweek Issued: Date: 2006-09-01 Reporter: Reporter:

Mr Mbeki's Retirement Pad



Noseweek, Issue 83

Date September 2006

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Frenzied construction work is being carried out in a quiet tree-lined road on Johannesburg’s Houghton Estate. But a few blocks from Nelson Mandela’s residence, up a long drive, concealed by a last-minute turn from the street, the retirement home of President Thabo Mbeki is nearing completion.

The giant Victorian bathtub is in; half a dozen magnificent chandeliers are lying in the hallway, ready for hanging. noseweek has had some fun visualising the finished mansion: but it’s no joke.

“It’s a retirement home for the Mbekis in a couple of years’ time,” says the project’s architect Etienne Botha. “But we’re not 100% sure if they’ll live there then. Maybe they’ll just sell it and build a new one later.”

The house’s special features are like something out of a James Bond movie. Next door to Mbeki’s first floor office is the Siege Room, encased by steel shutters which drop down in the event of an attack.

And, it is rumoured, in case things get too hot and evacuation is the only option, there’s to be a secret underground Escape Tunnel!

noseweek can confirm the Siege Room. “No, you don’t press a button so the steel shutters slide down; you have to wind them down by hand,” says architect Botha. “It’s a closedown sort of situation, in case something happens.”

And the Escape Tunnel? It seems this falls under the Top Secret part of things. “It’s not on the architect’s plans,” says Botha cautiously. “I’m not 100% sure if they’re still going to do it. There are several parties involved in this whole project – the security people, the South African Police Service and the department of public works. It’s a hell of a job, actually.”

The old house that once stood on the sizeable stand has been razed, leaving just a couple of walls now incorporated into the new design. Mbeki’s wife Zanele has played a strong role in the construction of the four-bedroomed double-storey thatched house, visiting twice a week to keep things on track.

Mrs Mbeki’s original requirement, says Botha, was “just a small farmhouse”. But it’s turned out to be a bit more than that. There’s an impressive guest wing, and a lapa in the grounds for those summer braais. Plus, of course, a solidly square guardhouse at the entrance to the property. An underground generator has been installed to ease the irritation of municipal power failures.

On her visits, Mrs Mbeki has not been hesitant to use her woman’s prerogative – and first lady’s clout – to chop and change from her original brief. A recent whim: a lift to waft the couple upstairs in their twilight years. A lift has duly been delivered.

Overseeing everything is the department of public works, which indicates that the tab for the “small farmhouse” will be picked up by the taxpayer. With an original budget of around R8m, the cost has now soared to an estimated R22m – and still rising. Hardly an expense Mbeki can be expected to meet from his meagre R1.1m a year presidential salary.

Builders of the Mbeki retirement nest are Motheo, the BEE construction group headed by Dr Thandi Ndlovu, a socio-political activist who has spearheaded the drive for women’s roles in the development of black business. (Motheo built half the 6000 low-cost houses in the Gauteng provincial government’s Mogale City project.)

The address of our leader’s retirement retreat? We’re not telling. Neither will thumbscrews nor the rack force us to reveal the (rumoured) location of the escape tunnel’s exit. n



One needs not only a lot of capital to purchase such a property and build such a dwelling, but also a very substantial income to operate and maintain it - probably in the region of R500 000 per year in 2006 terms and considerably more if there is other than low-level domestic staff.

If one earns R1,1 million per year before tax, then after tax this will be about R700 000. After living expenses after about R40 000 per month or R480 000 per year then one's disposable income would only be about R220 000, surely not enough to staff, operate and maintain and R20 million home.

There's a law in this country that requires the authorities to investigate the financials of government employees who consumption appears to exceed their lawful income. It needs to be used in this case.

With acknowledgement to Noseweek.