Putin’s hand in cab­i­net reshuf­fle

Krem­lin se­curo­crats met Zuma to ‘warn’ him about nu­clear deal just hours ear­lier


A top-level team said to be act­ing on di­rect or­ders from Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin met Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma shortly be­fore the sur­prise cab­i­net reshuf­fle this week, the Sun­day Times has learnt.

Their un­equiv­o­cal mes­sage to Zuma, in­sid­ers said, was to speed up and con­clude a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar nu­clear deal with the Rus­sians.

Just hours later, Zuma shocked his ANC col­leagues and the na­tion by an­nounc­ing an­other cab­i­net reshuf­fle, his sec­ond in less than seven months. Among the big­gest shocks was the el­e­va­tion of his close ally, for­mer state se­cu­rity min­is­ter David Mahlobo, to the post of en­ergy min­is­ter.

“Their visit was to de­liver what many of us be­lieve to be the fi­nal warn­ing to the South African au­thor­i­ties. We have now been warned. This group does not nor­mally leave Rus­sia. These are mem­bers of the mil­i­tary, the po­lice and the in­tel­li­gence,” said a source.

“While many in the cab­i­net are be­lieved to have been rec­om­mended by the Gup­tas, Mahlobo was cho­sen by the Rus­sians.”

The source said Mahlobo was cho­sen by the Rus­sians af­ter Zuma had ini­tially in­di­cated that he in­tended ap­point­ing Faith Muthambi, who is un­der­stood to have been rec­om­mended by the Gup­tas, as the new en­ergy min­is­ter. But the Rus­sians con­vinced Zuma to con­sider Mahlobo for the job.

The cab­i­net reshuf­fle has been widely con­demned, with even close col­leagues in the ANC top six say­ing it had taken them by sur­prise. Sev­eral warned that it could desta­bilise the gov­ern­ment and South Africa.

Zuma now ap­pears to be go­ing for broke with the nu­clear deal, brush­ing aside party and gov­ern­ment con­ven­tions to fi­nalise it be­fore the ANC’s elec­tive con­fer­ence in De­cem­ber, at which he is due to hand over the reins of the party.

Trained in Rus­sia

This lat­est meet­ing with the Rus­sians was be­lieved to have been pre­cip­i­tated by ut­ter­ances last Sun­day by Fi­nance Min­is­ter Malusi Gi­gaba at the an­nual meet­ing of the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund and World Bank groups in Wash­ing­ton. Gi­gaba, who also met with rat­ing agen­cies, said the coun­try “at present is not in a po­si­tion where it can carry the bur­den of nu­clear tech­nol­ogy”.

A gov­ern­ment in­sider said ru­mours of an im­pend­ing reshuf­fle with Gi­gaba, En­ergy Min­is­ter Nkhen­sani Kubayi and Po­lice Min­is­ter Fik­ile Mbalula as ca­su­al­ties had been do­ing the rounds for the past two months, but it is be­lieved Zuma is wary of re­mov­ing Gi­gaba be­fore his medium-term bud­get, due this week.

“We ex­pect that any­thing can hap­pen af­ter the mid-term bud­get,” said the source.

“Out of the three, one was just af­fected now in this move . . . [Kubayi’s] caused a bit of a headache by try­ing to steer nu­clear [and] it was known that some peo­ple were not happy with her. “This thing is com­pli­cated and it’s ugly.” Mahlobo had been telling his as­so­ci­ates for months that he was go­ing to be ap­pointed as ei­ther the new min­is­ter of en­ergy, or of wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion.

“Zuma’s ini­tial plan was to ap­point Muthambi, but he was pres­sured by the Rus­sians to in­stead ap­point Mahlobo. He [Zuma] is sh*t scared now be­cause he re­alises the Rus­sians are not play­ing,” the source added.

Mahlobo, who was trained in Rus­sia for three weeks shortly af­ter he was ap­pointed state se­cu­rity min­is­ter in 2014, is be­lieved to be the Rus­sians’ eyes and ears in the South African gov­ern­ment.

The Sun­day Times re­ported last month that Mahlobo went to Rus­sia with con­tro­ver­sial busi­ness­men and for­mer con­victs Kenny Kunene and Gay­ton McKen­zie, and in­tro­duced them to Ros­geo, a state com­pany that signed a $400-mil­lion (R5.4-bil­lion) deal with PetroSA to de­velop oil and gas blocks off the Cape south coast. All have de­nied that they trav­elled to­gether.

Sources within the gov­ern­ment told the Sun­day Times this week that Mahlobo and a trusted Zuma aide, Ge­orge Moloisi, met with the four Rus­sians on Mon­day, just a day be­fore the pres­i­dent reshuf­fled the cab­i­net, re­plac­ing Kubayi with Mahlobo.

The sources said the Rus­sians ar­rived in the coun­try last week via Mozam­bique and left on Mon­day, hours af­ter their meet­ing with Mahlobo and Moloisi.

The Rus­sians re­port­edly crossed back to Mozam­bique be­fore fly­ing out from Ma­puto.

Moloisi, who is a close friend of Kunene and McKen­zie, has been named as the per­son who fa­cil­i­tated the meet­ing be­tween Mahlobo, the Rus­sians and Zuma.

The 34-year-old aide has emerged as a lead­ing player in the plan to award mas­sive nu­clear en­ergy con­tracts to the Rus­sians.

Kubayi is said to have an­gered the Rus­sians when she vis­ited their coun­try in June and re­fused to sign a com­mit­ment to de­liver on the nu­clear deal.

Dur­ing her meet­ings with the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties and busi­ness peo­ple with in­ter­ests in the South African gov­ern­ment’s nu­clear en­ergy con­tracts, she is be­lieved to have told the Rus­sians to back off and al­low her time to study and un­der­stand the nu­clear pro­cesses as she was still new to her port­fo­lio.

Their visit was to de­liver what many of us be­lieve to be the fi­nal warn­ing to the South African au­thor­i­ties

Kubayi re­port­edly told them that dis­cus­sions on the nu­clear deal could only com­mence af­ter Fe­bru­ary next year.

The Sun­day Times un­der­stands that be­fore Kubayi re­turned to South Africa, Putin had al­ready sent a del­e­ga­tion to ques­tion Zuma about her state­ment. Zuma is said to have promised the Rus­sians that he would deal with her.

Sources said that was why Mahlobo, Cen­tral En­ergy Fund chair­man Luvo Makasi, Kunene and McKen­zie trav­elled to Moscow on Au­gust 27.

The Sun­day Times re­vealed last month that Kunene and McKen­zie were in­tro­duced to the Rus­sians as po­ten­tial BEE part­ners in the gas deal.

Kubayi told par­lia­ment in Au­gust that the in­te­grated en­ergy plan and in­te­grated re­source plan would be ready by Fe­bru­ary next year. This week she said her re­moval from the En­ergy Depart­ment was in line with her strengths, not due to her stance.

“I was called and an ex­pla­na­tion was given to me,” she said.

“On the is­sue of [the in­te­grated re­source plan], I have been pub­lic about it as a crit­i­cal doc­u­ment that needs to guide us into the fu­ture, and we had taken a com­mit­ment of Fe­bru­ary 2018. I am not so sure what could have caused a prob­lem be­cause it was an open is­sue in the pub­lic.”

She said she had no knowl­edge of a Rus­sian del­e­ga­tion that came into the coun­try this week.

The Sun­day Times has es­tab­lished that the trip by Mahlobo in Au­gust was meant to as­sure the Rus­sians that South Africa was com­mit­ted to the nu­clear pro­gramme and that the gas ex­plo­ration agree­ment which was sub­se­quently signed by Makasi and Ros­geo CEO Ro­man Panov, on the side­lines of the Brics sum­mit in Xi­a­men, China, on Septem­ber 4, was on track.

“It had to be Mahlobo who goes to see the Rus­sians be­cause that’s the per­son who is trusted and known that he can de­liver on the nu­clear and calm the Rus­sians, who were up­set,” said one source.

In an in­ter­view with the Sun­day Times ear­lier this month, Kubayi ad­mit­ted to hav­ing no knowl­edge of the trip in­volv­ing Mahlobo and was “shocked that it hap­pened be­cause based on the work, the next meet­ing was in China, Xi­a­men” at the Brics sum­mit.

“I had not signed for any­one go­ing out­side the coun­try and no au­tho­ri­sa­tion for any­one to go out of the coun­try to Moscow. I had no idea what had hap­pened. In terms of the process in gov­ern­ment, when a chair­per­son of an en­tity trav­els [Makasi] I sign their trav­els,” Kubayi said.

Ros­geo has yet to an­nounce its lo­cal busi­ness part­ners to PetroSA in the gas ex­plo­ration deal.

Nei­ther the Pres­i­dency nor Mahlobo re­sponded to ques­tions from the news­pa­per.

Rus­sian leader Vladimir Putin is said to have sent a heavy­weight team to SA.

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