By Peroshni Govender
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's government dismissed criticisms on Thursday that a $21 million (£12.9 million) state-funded security upgrade of President Jacob Zuma's private home was extravagant, saying features such as a chicken coop and cattle pen were more than "nice to haves".
The cost of the upgrade has sparked an outcry against Zuma, whose unpopularity as South Africa's leader since 2009 was highlighted when he was booed at a memorial for anti-apartheid legend Nelson Mandela on December 10.
South Africa's biggest union called this week for Zuma to resign over the cost of security at his home, suggesting the scandal could hurt the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in elections due in April or May next year.
But, after an official investigation into reports of extravagance, the government denied any improper spending on the sprawling homestead in Nkandla in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province.
"Attempts to lay blame on the president are misguided," Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi told a news conference. He said the state had not paid to build the original residence, merely upgrades to security.
He denied the government had built Zuma a swimming pool, saying the feature was a 'fire pool' to be used as a water reservoir for fire-fighting should any of the thatched buildings in the compound go up in flames.
He also justified a new chicken coop and cattle enclosure, saying experts had concluded that roaming cows could damage "sensitive electronic equipment", while free-range chickens were a security risk.
In November, a newspaper published leaked findings of a report by the Public Protector, South Africas's top anti-corruption watchdog, that found Zuma had derived "substantial" personal gain from the improvements to his home.
The report, entitled 'Opulence on a Grand Scale', recommended Zuma repay some of the money spent.
The government's explanations are unlikely to sit well with voters who have become frustrated with the ANC after a string of scandals involving senior government figures mis-spending state money.
Despite the public anger, the ANC is likely to win next year's elections due to the widespread support it continues to enjoy as the party that freed South African from decades of white-minority rule.
The Public Protector's report also found some of the more legitimate security features, such as 20 houses for police protection, a clinic and two helipads, were excessive and should have been placed in a nearby town to benefit the broader community, the newspaper report said.
Of the 215 million rand ($20.80 million) spent on the Nkandla project, Nxesi said 71 million rand went to Zuma's homestead and the balance was spent on "basic facilities" for security personnel.
He admitted that the cost of the additional buildings did appear to be inflated and said the police had been asked to investigate.
($1 = 10.3344 South African rand)
(Reporting by Peroshni Govender)