Johannesburg - It was a six-day visit with a most unpunishing schedule.
Although the Presidency issued a press release about Zuma’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a veil of secrecy was drawn over the details of the rest of his visit, City Press reports.
His only other known meeting was with Michael Margelov, Putin’s special representative for cooperation with African states, with whom he discussed African peacekeeping and Russia’s concerns about Islamic extremists gaining a foothold in Africa.
Unusually, for a long visit to an important ally, Zuma was accompanied only by State Security Minister David Mahlobo and Deputy International Relations Minister Nomaindia Mfeketo.
It was rumoured that, as usual, he took his doctor and four security officers, but, unusually, no aides, advisers nor wives.
Last week, Putin was swamped with concerns and bad publicity about the intensifying war in Ukraine in which Russia has been branded as the aggressor.
He made time to receive Zuma on Thursday at Novo-Ogariovo - his residence near Moscow where he welcomes his foreign friends in a “less official atmosphere”.
Zuma is one of Putin’s most frequent visitors. This is his fifth trip to Russia, the two also met at the Brics summit in Brazil last month.
The visit came as a surprise to Russian and South African journalists.
Nothing was leaked about it, not even in Russia, where controls on the flow of information have been tightened in recent months.
An official at the Russian Embassy in Pretoria refused to go beyond the details of the official press releases around the visit.
“For now, we do not comment on Zuma’s visit to Russia,” he said.
The official release from Putin’s office said the working meeting occurred “in the context of the upcoming November session of the joint South Africa-Russia Intergovernmental Committee on Trade and Economic Cooperation”.
It also said the two would discuss how to further develop Russia and South Africa’s strategic partnership, “including investment ties, bilateral trade and the export of agricultural produce from South Africa”.
Putin has introduced tit-for-tat agricultural sanctions against the European Union and the US after they slapped sanctions on Russian banks and technology companies.
This has led to the disappearance of fruit, cheese and some meats and dairy products from local supermarkets.
Russia turning to SA for help
As 20% of what Russians consume is imported, the country is now turning to South Africa and friendly Latin American states for help.
Zuma’s office last week also said he “requested support” for South Africa’s peacekeeping efforts in Africa, including the interim standby force, or the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC).
Zuma has spearheaded the creation of ACIRC and an underfunded South African defence force is scrambling to get ready for duty in October.
André Roux, senior researcher in the training for peace programme at the Institute for Security Studies said it was likely that South Africa wanted Russia to help with strategic airlifts for the planned intervention force.
“Russia has a big strategic fleet that can provide airlift. They have massive capacity to spare,” he said.
This included a large fleet of Ilyushin 76 and Antonov 124 aircraft.
Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama also pledged military assistance to the African Union peacekeeping forces, but ideologically and in terms of strategic relations, South Africa is closer to Russia than the US.
Roux said the Russians were also concerned about China because, although it is an ally through Brics, the country is also Russia’s biggest competitor in Africa.
However, China does not have the equipment available to provide the same type of military assistance.
He added that South Africa had an intelligence-sharing agreement with the Russians, which could be used during interventions or peacekeeping operations.