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.