There have been a number of theories on why President Jacob Zuma has just reshuffled his Cabinet. Was it to get some close chums in there to fight his corner and keep him from the courts if he is deposed by the ANC? Was it to help pave the way for his former wife to ascend to the Presidency? Was it to exact revenge on his long-time critic Blade Nzimande, who has become a rather sharp thorn in his side?
We have limited confidence in these story lines and believe that the most compelling argument is that the reshuffle was about control of South African energy resources – and not necessarily nuclear energy as is widely speculated, but rather that the nuclear deal may itself be a diversion from something else – the mortgaging of South Africa’s gas reserves.
The axing of Dr Blade Nzimande, we believe, was simply incidental to conceal what would otherwise have been even more apparent.
Commentators, most prominently Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council in Washington, have written that Russia’s disengagement from Africa post-Cold War was reversed by Vladimir Putin, who saw Africa as a source of diplomatic support for Russia’s geo-strategic ambitions.
Russian diplomats understand energy diplomacy and have skilfully used such diplomacy to force power balances with Western European diplomats. Much of Europe depends on Russian gas and would be vulnerable to freezing in winter in the taps were turned off.
As the IRR has previously written, Russian energy firms (Gazprom, Lukoil, and Rosatom) have become the focal point of Russia’s engagement with Africa and have made considerable oil, gas, and nuclear power investments in countries ranging from Algeria to Nigeria, Ghana, and Egypt. In the case of both Egypt – and now South Africa – the major investor is the Russian nuclear firm Rosatom.
In anticipation of this investment, a number of companies with close ties to the Gupta and Zuma families appeared to position themselves to take advantage of the pending nuclear agreement. The purchase of the Rietkuil uranium mine by the Guptas was one such deal.
It has been suggested to us that key ANC and government leaders have been so compromised by corruption around some of these early positioning deals, that they have effectively been reduced to vassals. Furthermore there is a degree of coincidence between South Africa’s voting track-record at the United Nations and activity around the nuclear deal.
However, as the nuclear agreement may be unaffordable for South Africa, it would effectively mortgage South Africa’s economy to Moscow – particularly if the payoff translates into Russian control of future gas finds off the South African coastline, or rights of first refusal on constructing gas pipelines.
Either option would allow Russia significant strategic influence over the Southern African region – along similar lines to what its energy diplomacy allows it to exert over parts of Europe.
It was alleged that Nhlanhla Nene was fired as finance minister in December of 2015 because of his refusal to support the Rosatom nuclear deal. Similar allegations have done the rounds about the subsequent firing of Pravin Gordhan.
Now we have a cabinet reshuffle which is removing an Energy Minister who was, at the very least, moving with less than sufficient haste on that same deal.
Behind all of this may sit a much deeper jostling for geo-strategic influence on a continent that is becoming ever more important to global power balances.
Russian diplomats have proven most adept at such jostling, and may come to exercise in Africa the same growing influence they have of late carved out for themselves in the Middle East.
Frans Cronje is scenario planner and CEO of the Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.