COMMENT AND ANALYSIS
President Jacob Zuma is now a law unto himself.
He has brazenly and cynically put his confidant and strongman David Mahlobo in charge of energy, which means only one thing: he is determined to forge ahead with the procurement of unaffordable nuclear power plants.
This is Zuma's umpteenth Cabinet reshuffle and follows the dramatic reshuffle in March when Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, were unceremoniously booted out of the executive. In that reshuffle Tina Joemat-Pettersson was also culled as minister of energy and replaced by backbench ANC MP Mmamoloku Kubayi (the same MP who was pictured painting her nails during the Nkandla inquiry).
Joemat-Pettersson was dumped weeks before the High Court in Cape Town invalidated her department's plans to procure nuclear energy and after a decision was taken to move the management of nuclear procurement to Eskom. Zuma, allegedly under pressure from Russian president Vladimir Putin to move ahead with gifting the package to Russian firm Rosatom, was unhappy with the inability of Joemat-Pettersson – a loyal footsoldier in the Zuma project – to bring the matter to finality. Kubayi, a political lightweight, was an easy replacement but it is quite obvious that Zuma was unhappy with her too.
The resignation of the disgraced Nduduzi Manana, who resigned as deputy minister of higher education after assaulting a woman in a nightclub, gave Zuma the opportunity to clean house.
Mahlobo's appointment to the ministry of energy is significant. He has been a constant presence at Zuma's side, accompanying him on almost all foreign trips, appearing with him in public and often being the very first person he turns to after delivering public speeches. His tenure as minister of state security – the erstwhile department of intelligence was ominously renamed to state security when Zuma came to power in 2009 – has coincided with a growing paranoia in Zuma circles around regime change.
Mahlobo has been vocal about his reservations about free speech and protest, warning against nascent uprisings fomented by non-governmental organisations and marches in budget speeches and at the recent ANC policy conference. This fits in snugly with Zuma's world view, which views many of this country's basic Constitutional tenets with suspicion.
Nuclear procurement has stuttered and ground to a halt. The High Court judgment in April made it very clear that it cannot proceed unless a transparent and inclusive parliamentary process is followed. The judgment nullified all the work (and the initial agreements that have been signed) but did not preclude the process from starting afresh. Mahlobo's brief undoubtedly will be to restart it and to ensure that its driven hard and driven mercilessly to a suitable conclusion before Zuma's presidential term ends in 2019.
All of this of course happened while the parliamentary portfolio committee on public enterprises launched its inquiry into the capture of Eskom, Transnet and Denel, with the electricity utility being fingered as a cesspool of corruption and dodgy dealings. Now Mahlobo will have to navigate the procurement process between his department and Eskom, who politically reports to Lynne Brown, another trusted Zuma lieutenant. If those two can't push through nuclear, nobody can.