David Mahlobo, the nuclear deal's new best friend?

Johannesburg - New Energy Minister David Mahlobo could make it much easier to realise South Africa’s nuclear ambitions, several commentators warned on Tuesday.

They voiced the opinion that Mahlobo's abilities as a spy will be a handy tool to cast a veil of secrecy around critical deals that need to be hidden.

Concerns were raised that President Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet reshuffle, moving Mmamoloko Kubayi from the energy portfolio to communications and replacing her with the former state security minister, was a definite shift towards nuclear.

"This is all about the nuclear deal. Mahlobo has accompanied the president on visits to Russia, presumably to lay the ground for the Rosatom nuclear deal," said Lawson Naidoo of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution.

Mahlobo is seen as a close confidant of Zuma, with some labelling him as the president’s loyal "Prime Minister". 

Also significant is that Zuma was accompanied only by Mahlobo and Deputy International Relations Minister Nomaindia Mfeketo on his state visit to Russia in 2014, where he met with Putin at his residence in Novo-Ogariovo. No aides, advisers or wives went along, creating a veil of secrecy.

It has been widely speculated that Zuma and Putin struck a deal on nuclear cooperation at this meeting, but no evidence has ever emerged to confirm this.

The meeting only came to light later that week in 2014.

Democratic Alliance energy spokesperson Gordon Mackay said South Africans should be deeply concerned. “This is the state securitisation of the energy department. It started under Kubayi and will be completed under Mahlobo.”

He said Zuma was effectively taking control of the department, which has always been viewed as a department of former president Thabo Mbeki.

“It is the clearest indication that the state is dead set on pursuing nuclear.”

Mackay said Mahlobo is an enforcer, and a master at creating a murky atmosphere around deals that need to be pushed through and hidden.

The new energy minister is seen as close to Zuma and someone who can drive the nuclear deal, said Daniel Silke, director at the Political Futures Consultancy.

Liz McDaid, spokesperson for the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, said since the institute’s court victory earlier this year in the high court, which ordered the government to restart the nuclear process, nothing has apparently happened on the surface to show progress with the deal. 

“We suspected something was happening behind closed doors,” she said. “Last Friday's nuclear site authorisation and now today's Cabinet reshuffle has seen the Intelligence Minister become the Energy Minister. This is a desperate attempt to force through the nuclear deal."

The Sunday Times last month added further fuel to the fire on Mahlobo’s Russian links, when the paper reported that Mahlobo had made the introductions between Russian gas company Rosgeo and controversial businessmen Kenny Kunene and Gayton McKenzie.

Rosgeo signed a R5.3bn deal with PetroSA for gas exploration off the southern coast to feed the gas to liquids refinery at Mossel Bay at the recent Brics summit in Xiamen, China. 

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