Dogged by scandal at home, President Jacob Zuma has headed to Russia, seemingly on a trip about trade relations.
It worked for Richard Nixon. In February 1972, the United States’s then-president made history and changed the course of world events with a single visit to China. It began the first official relationship between the two states after a 25-year impasse, and realigned the balance of the Cold War.
The visit even coined a political catch phrase: “Nixon goes to China” became shorthand for an unexpected move by a political leader, signifying a shift in direction.
President Jacob Zuma’s working visit to Russia this week was certainly unexpected, given his ill-timed departure in the heat of protests over his perceived evading of responsibility around the Nkandla scandal, and losing his legal battle regarding the spy tapes.
As for a shift in relationship with another country, it is no secret that Russian companies are in pole position for the nearly R1-trillion tender to build South Africa several nuclear power stations. Will this visit seal the long-awaited deal?
“I think Russia seriously wants better relations with South Africa, and I think [Russian President Vladimir] Putin understands our politics,” said international affairs expert Professor Renfrew Christie, from the University of the Western Cape.
Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, chief executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs, pointed out that the ANC-led government and Russia have had a long and sometimes complicated history.
After being allies during the Soviet era, relations with the ANC cooled, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992. This began when the newly-created Russian state established an embassy in South Africa in 1992, before power had transferred to the ANC, said Sidiropoulos.
“That created a bit of a difficult relationship,” Sidiropoulos told the Mail & Guardian. “SA’s first state visit [to Russia] was in the last days of Nelson Mandela’s presidency in 1999.”
Russia meanwhile focused its attention on the West and improving its global standing, while somewhat neglecting its historically strong relationships with national liberation movements across Africa.
Nuclear bid provides impetus
But things changed from 2000 onwards as Putin’s relationship with the West suffered and he refocused his country’s energy on Africa, and particularly South Africa. “We’ve seen an accelerated engagement on the political level over the last two years,” said Sidiropoulos.
Siphamandla Zondi, director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, a foreign policy think tank, has written that their relationship previously “lacked a particular catalyst to fire them up”, and while the ANC-led government has “also not consistently pursued elevation of these relations by finding an effective glue that would bind the two countries’ strategic interests”.
The nuclear bid, it would appear, has provided this impetus.
Now Russia and South Africa are quickly catching up; it would appear, with all that comes along with it. US investigative journalist John Helmer has reported on seemingly linked parallel business deals involving Russian interests and those aligned to Zuma, to possibly provide cash in hand for Zuma’s connections while the Russians await a positive outcome on the nuclear deal.
Then there are the conspiracy theories dogging Zuma’s trip, given the note on the official statement that he will spend some of the time resting. The Democratic Alliance (DA) is already questioning why the president took along no ministers from the economic cluster, on a trip that seems to be largely about trade relations.
Instead, the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) Nomaindia Mfeketo is there, as well as David Mahlobo, the minister of state security. Zuma’s spokesperson Mac Maharaj also did not accompany the president.
The rumour mill has it that Zuma may be receiving some sort of medical treatment while in Russia, following his downtime for health reasons after the punishing elections in May this year.
Is Zuma ‘having a holiday’?
Then there are the opposition’s concerns that he is merely having a holiday.
“It is unclear why talks could not be scheduled as to allow the president sufficient rest, within the boundaries of South Africa and at significantly reduced cost, before implementing what is essentially a state-funded vacation,” said the DA’s Sejamothopo Motau in a statement this week.
The presidency and Dirco did not respond to questions from the M&G about these concerns.
“We do not know enough to be definitive about what is at play,” Zondi told the M&G. He did say he was surprised at the note about a rest period, calling it unusual. But he suggested it may be an attempt to avoid controversy should it leak that Zuma had a holiday while in Russia.
“Whether he can go on holiday abroad after concluding his business there is not a problem in my view, but whether rules allow, I have no clue.”
The visit may seem ill-timed to South Africans who are demanding answers from the president on a host of scandals. But for the international experts M&G spoke to, it may just be what the country needs. “We are so far away from where the big stuff happens, the more we are on aeroplanes the better,” said Christie.
Zondi thought the visit may even help the president’s domestic headaches. “It came just at the right time to allow the president perhaps to think very carefully and deeply about the implications of recent events, including what he might want to do differently and what lessons have been learned,” he said. “I don’t think the timing was planned, but all the same it was just what he needed frankly: a break for some real thinking.”