Of ancient Rome and rural KZN

Private Property South Africa
Shaun Wewege

The nation waits with bated breath for the outcome of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s Nkandla report. Did President Jacob Zuma abuse his position to make excessive and lavish upgrades to his home?

But whatever the outcome of the report, Zuma is not the first person of power to face accusations of using State funds to upgrade his standard of living.

British politicians recently came under fire for charging bathroom mats, cushions and kitchenware to the taxpayer. Lothario and former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is believed to have properties valued at over $500-million and has been involved in a number of court cases involving bribery, corruption, embezzlement and fraud.

Luckily for these guys, they’re living in an era where allegations need to be tested in the courtroom. History has not always been so kind to leaders who’ve used State funds to repair, upgrade or rebuild their homes.

Ancient corruption

Nero, Emperor of Rome, used the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD to his advantage and subsequently built his Golden House – Domus Aurea. The interior was decorated with semi-precious stones, ivory veneer and frescos. Nero even built his own lake, setting the bar incredibly high for fire-pools of the future.

To build this lavish palace (where his behavior became increasingly depraved) he sold public office positions, raised taxes, devalued currency and took money from temples. But when he uncovered a plot to have him assassinated he decided on suicide and, being unable to take his own life, he assigned the dirty deed to his private secretary.

Roman historian Peter Jones estimates that only 28 out of more than 130 Roman Emperors lived to retire and very few managed to enjoy their lavish villas in their golden years. This is the price they paid for using their power to get into office and abusing it more so once made Emperor.

The madness of it all

You have to be fairly unpopular to have the prefix “mad” attached to your name, but that is precisely the fate that befell Ludwig II of Bavaria. His life is steeped in tragedy and irony. Ludwig reigned at a time when nations where beginning to drop monarchies in favour of sovereign governments. This didn’t stop him from building a number of exquisite palaces and castles, the most notable being Neuschwanstein Castle, a marvel of engineering and of Ludwig’s imagination.

He built an artificial grotto and themed every room and hall on composer Richard Wagner’s operas. His spending on such castles reached epic proportions. A group of conspirators eventually had him declared mentally incompetent and removed him from the throne. A short while later he died. Officially, he is said to have drowned though there are accounts of witnesses hearing gunshots and his coat is said to have bullet holes.

Ludwig never planned for any of his castle to be open for public viewing. Today, as many as 6 000 tourists a day walk the halls of Neuschwanstein and by some estimates, over 60 million people have visited the castle since Ludwig’s death. It is ironic that the result of his spending over a century ago has now become a financial contributor to Bavaria’s GDP.

Will the public one day be able to go on a guided tour of Nkandla? Only time will tell. Depending on Thuli’s assessment, of course.

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