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South Africa's President Jacob Zuma talks with striking mine workers at the Lonmin mine near Rustenburg, South Africa, this week. The government is reviving mediation efforts.
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma talks with striking mine workers at the Lonmin mine near Rustenburg, South Africa, this week. The government is reviving mediation efforts.

Zuma tries to burnish his own image – and South Africa’s Add to ...

Facing a growing furor over a $27-million upgrade to his palatial family home in a rural village, South African president Jacob Zuma is defending the lavish spending by confessing his dislike for his “huge house” in Pretoria.

Mr. Zuma, buffeted by weeks of political scandal and labour chaos, launched a charm offensive with the foreign media on Monday as he sought to maintain his grip on the ruling African National Congress. But he soon found himself bogged down in a lengthy attempt to defuse the controversy over the government spending on his home renovation.

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With less than two months remaining until he faces a crucial vote at an ANC conference, Mr. Zuma is struggling to restore the badly battered image of his country, following a surge of wildcat strikes that damaged its economy and led to the deaths of more than 60 people.

The violence, including the massacre of 34 protesteors by heavily armed police at the Marikana platinum mine, has sparked a barrage of negative publicity in the world’s financial media, with foreign investors increasingly wary of venturing into South Africa’s once-dominant mining industry.

Mr. Zuma, who asked to speak to foreign correspondents in Johannesburg on Monday, insisted that wildcat strikes are normal in any democracy. And he tried to dampen the mounting uproar over his home in the southern village of Nkandla, where the government has spent $27-million on underground bunkers, tunnels, bulletproof glass, elevators, soccer fields for his bodyguards, and other features.

Mr. Zuma, a polygamist who has four wives and more than 20 children, already enjoys the use of three presidential residences in Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban.

He has been sharply attacked in the South African media for allowing his government to spend so much money on his village home. But he insisted that the government did not build any of his residences in Nkandla. The government only paid for “security” features such as “fencing,” while his family built all of the traditional thatched chalets in the compound, he said.

“I built my own house,” he said. “Government came to say that we need security features.”

He said the same security measures were mandatory in his official residence in Pretoria. “It’s a very huge house, and I only use one room,” he said. “It has every feature of security. I wouldn’t prefer to stay in such a house, whether in Pretoria or Cape Town. If you become president you’ve got to do things that as an individual you would not have done.”

Mr. Zuma, clearly in damage-control mode, announced on Sunday that he was abandoning a lawsuit against a famed South African cartoonist who portrayed him as raping Lady Justice. He also suggested on Monday that he might not proceed with a proposed “media tribunal” to regulate newspapers, as long as the media “respect the rights of others.”

Mr. Zuma is facing a potential challenge to his ANC leadership by his deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, who told the Financial Times in an interview published Monday that the December conference could be a tipping point for the ruling party.

Mr. Zuma rejected the statement. “We are not tipping,” he told the foreign correspondents. “Strikes in a democracy are a common occurrence. It’s wrong to exaggerate, to say that because there are strikes therefore South Africa is in a big crisis. … To us, there is no crisis.”

But he also acknowledged that the killing of the protesting workers at Marikana was a “shock” to the country. “We have witnessed a tragic wave of illegal violent strikes in the past few months, which have claimed many lives,” he said.

“These painful incidents are not what we want to see in a free and democratic South Africa, where people are free to express themselves,” he added. “The killings brought into sharp focus the need for government to engage the mining sector more.”

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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