WATCH | ‘Shifty shakers’ of SA’s massive but failed nuclear deal

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Former president Jacob Zuma.
Former president Jacob Zuma.
PHOTO: Oli Scarff, Getty Images

BOOK: Nuclear: Inside South Africa's secret deal by Karyn Maughan and Kirsten Pearson.

"These Russians are shifty shakers," said Anoj Singh, who would know what a “shifty shaker” was, being an alleged Gupta operator. He was Eskom’s CFO when the Zuma administration was trying to push through a R1-trillion deal to build nuclear reactors in South Africa. It would have been South Africa’s largest infrastructure project ever, and would have indebted South Africa to Russia for at least 30 years, probably longer.

Overall, the deal, without even thinking about the cost overruns and building delays that almost always accompany such projects (see Eskom’s Kusile power station, for one), would have cost roughly the same amount as South Africa’s annual GDP.

In Nuclear: Inside South Africa’s Secret Deal (Tafelberg), Karyn Maughan and Kirsten Pearson trace the origins of that deal and follow its wobbling progress through South Africa’s government agencies. It was ultimately stymied, partly by activist action and, as they tell it, partly by the resistance of state officials, particularly in the Treasury, who could see that it was a bad deal all round.

Yet the story of the nuclear deal says a lot about how Jacob Zuma operated when he was president of South Africa and how elements of state capture worked, especially when they were driven from above.

Weirdly enough, the origins of the deal lie in Zuma’s famous 2014 visit to Russia to be treated for the poisoning attempt that he has been going on about for years now. He blamed Western intelligence agencies, just as he has blamed them for concocting the arms deal case against him, as well as his unfortunate fourth wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma. There lies a sad saga of abuse and manipulation, one which, appropriately enough, feeds into the nuclear story.

Presumably it was between bouts of treatment for the claimed poisoning that Zuma got to chat to his “friend” Vladimir Putin, president and virtual dictator of Russia, and the nuclear deal was set up. It is telling that Zuma tried to push the deal through in a way reminiscent of the way Putin has handled Russia’s oligarchs: it was surrounded by secrecy and there was a great vagueness about financing. Zuma was always fudgy with numbers, and he appears to have believed that South Africa had an infinite supply of money to spend on such projects (as well as his personal requirements) – or he simply didn’t care if he bankrupted the country.


ALSO READ: EXCERPT | Karyn Maughan and Kirsten Pearson's 'Nuclear: Inside South Africa's secret deal'

He also seems to have thought that he could ram through this kind of deal without following legal governmental prescripts. The secrecy of the deal indicates that perhaps he knew he was skirting the edge of the law, or he thought he could do a Putin and order it by diktat. It’s likely, too, that he had little sense of how such things worked: despite the work of any number of shills and manipulators, the deal couldn’t get past the Treasury. There was also, simply, incompetence. The Treasury asked the Department of Energy (DoE) to provide sufficient information to allow it to cost the deal and work out the potential procurement and financing arrangements, but the DoE repeatedly failed to provide such information.

All this, and the resistance to the deal within government, meant Zuma had to start firing finance ministers and parastatal executives and replacing them with more compliant people – you could call them “shifty shakers”. He forced through the signature of an intergovernmental memorandum, which looked more like a binding commercial agreement with Russia and was manifestly illegal – the basis on which the deal was squashed by the court. Even after that judgment Zuma and his minions kept pushing the deal, and for portions of the money to be made from it to go to the Guptas.

In a lovely historic irony, it was Zuma’s firing of finance ministers (Nhlanhla Nene in 2015 and Pravin Gordhan in 2017) and his attempt to put a more compliant minister into that job that began the process that led to his ultimate removal from the position of president.

That the Russia deal was blocked gives one hope in South Africa’s good public servants and its civil society, and makes one grateful that there are still some legal and institutional checks and balances on executive power. Earthlife and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Enviroment Institute, who went to court to stop the deal, should be seen as heroes, as should those in the Treasury and elsewhere who helped stymie it. In a new interview with Tina Joemat-Pettersson, then the minister of energy and the signatory of one memorandum, she claims to be one of those people, but her account is somewhat ambiguous and has too many gaps.

Whatever the case, Maughan and Pearson tell this tale in a swift yet detailed manner, pulling together the Zondo commission testimony of those involved, on both sides, that shed retrospective light on the deal. Nuclear is another story of state capture, attempted rather than successful in this case, but hugely illuminating of the corrupt shenanigans that have brought South Africa nearly to its knees. 

The cover of 'Nuclear: Inside South Africa's secret deal' (Supplied)

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