Russia deal: How minister, DG got nuked

Johannesburg - City Press spoke to people who were close to the processes that eventually led to the startling announcement by state-owned Russian nuclear energy giant Rosatom and South Africa’s energy department of a “nuclear partnership agreement”.

This lays the foundation for constructing eight nuclear power plants in South Africa based on Russian VVER reactors.

The deal, which Rosatom values at $50bn (R560bn), would result in additional electricity capacity of 9.6 gigawatts of power.

City Press has learnt from various sources that in his determination to secure the deal at all costs, President Jacob Zuma pushed aside those he saw as obstacles to that goal.

Senior officials told City Press that despite the president’s interest in the deal, there was a group in the department that was set on ensuring the process was fair and equitable.

It was allegedly led by energy DG Nelisiwe Magubane, who was in favour of a nuclear deal but insisted on an open procurement process.

Energy department officials were alarmed that the agreement was giving the Russians too much power, forcing them to use only Russian technology, and letting Russia decide who South Africa would conduct nuclear dealings with.

A vibrant SA nuclear industry

In exchange, Russia would help liberally with the financing of the estimated R1 trillion programme and promised to assist in creating a vibrant South African nuclear industry that would create jobs.

Magubane, a former engineer who, when told about the draft agreement favouring the Russians, strongly objected to what she saw as a flouting of process – and then became a prime target.

“She objected loudest. She wanted to do everything according to the book, but this was a problem because Zuma wanted bureaucracy to be eased. She is a stickler for rules and procedures, and she was not going to jail for anything,” said a senior nuclear lobbyist, who added that Magubane resisted pressure in meetings from people as high as the presidency.

“They said she had stress, she had to be hospitalised, but she was in fine health when she left the department. Her contract was only expiring in November. Why did she leave before then?” asked the lobbyist.

Magubane stays mum

Magubane declined to comment when contacted by City Press.

Zuma installed himself as chair of the national nuclear energy executive co-ordinating committee in 2013. The committee is the lead negotiator on nuclear procurement.

Former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe had asked to be removed from the committee, his former associates said.

Officials involved with the committee told City Press that before Motlanthe left, they had no idea who was in charge.

They would be invited to two separate meetings – one at 10:00 chaired by Motlanthe and one an hour later chaired by Zuma.

A relationship of respect

Former energy minister Ben Martins told City Press he had the highest regard for Magubane and that he always gave her space to do what she felt was right.

“I respected her integrity as a person who is responsible and a professional accounting officer, and she also respected me as minister. She did the right thing as far as she was concerned, and I made sure she carried out her work and allowed her that space,” he said.

He said he was not aware of the meeting in which she raised her objections with Zuma present, but said he was not at all in the meetings where the president met senior department officials.

Asked if he felt pressured during his term of office to enter into a deal that would favour the Russians, Martins said he would never had agreed to attach his name where proper processes were not being followed.

“I can say to you there is nobody who will be able to make me do something untoward," he said.

'I act according to my conscience'

"I only have one name and I act according to my conscience. If there is anything I disagree with, I articulate my disagreement. While I was minister, I had no choice but to follow the letter of the law. That’s what I sought to do.”

Martins said he was not surprised that Rosatom had put a figure on the draft agreement, saying it would have done this to place itself at an advantage when the final decision was made.

“I have not seen the statement, but I’m not surprised that the Russians are going to give the impression that it’s a done deal in order to strengthen their bid,” he said.

A government official who worked closely with Martins at the time said the former minister had resisted all attempts to get him to agree to a nuclear draft agreement that he felt overstepped regulations because he was a man who was “highly principled” and insisted that rules and regulations be strictly followed.

The department of energy said allegations that Zuma had improperly influenced the nuclear power deal were “baseless and at best ludicrous, and they are purely concocted in order to tarnish the image and integrity of the president, and the government of South Africa”.

Zuma’s spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, did not respond to requests for comment.

 - City Press

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