South African Deputy President David Mabuza’s trip to Russia this week was not only to strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries but also to break the bad news to President Vladimir Putin that South Africa could not afford to go ahead with a nuclear deal, senior government officials said this week.
Earlier in the week, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that Mabuza had been appointed as a special envoy to Russia. He is expected to return on Monday.
The official line, confirmed by International Relations and Co-operation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, was that Mabuza was going to congratulate Putin on his recent re-election as president and to discuss issues affecting the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc.
But two officials said Mabuza would also discuss what one of them called the elephant in the room — the nuclear deal.
They said Mabuza was also expected to apologise because South Africa could not afford him a state visit to coincide with the Brics summit in July, an invitation issued by former president Jacob Zuma.
Ramaphosa last month accepted a request from Chinese President Xi Jinping to pay a state visit to South Africa at the same time, which is said to have angered Putin.
Government insiders also said another of Ramaphosa’s reasons to send Mabuza to Russia was his discovery that Zuma had planned to visit Putin.
Zuma left for Russia some time this week.
The former president is said to have grown close to the Russian president over the years.
“In anticipation of what the discussion between Zuma and Putin could entail, DD [Mabuza] had to be dispatched quickly. That’s why he had to be appointed a special envoy and go there [Russia] with a letter, for three reasons.
“One, to congratulate Putin on his re-election, secondly to apologise on this thing of the state visit with the understanding that we [South Africa] acknowledge that we are aware we invited you before China approached us. We will have to work out dates on which you [Putin] can do state visit. Number three is to deal with the elephant in the room — to say nuclear was problematic politically.
“It is not like we wanted to mess up our relationship with Russia but the issue was not managed properly,” said an official, who did not want to be named.
In February this year, Ramaphosa told business leaders at the World Economic Forum that South Africa had excess energy and not enough money to expand into nuclear.
“We have to look at where the economy is. We have excess power and we have no money to go for a major nuclear plant building,” Ramaphosa told reporters in Davos. “We have said the nuclear process will be looked at in the broad context of affordability.”
His remarks followed an agreement signed by the energy department to have Russia and four other countries supply bids for the construction of nuclear power stations. But these were placed on hold after Ramaphosa replaced Zuma as president earlier this year.
The official said that because South Africa could not go ahead with the nuclear deal now did not mean it could not discuss the matter with Russia some time in the future.
“The issue is that now the country can’t afford this thing. It’s not personal. It’s not because of Putin. Even if it was another country or head of state, it was not going to work. It must not be seen as if we are messing up the relationship with Russia,” the official said.
But Sisulu this week downplayed Mabuza’s visit to Russia, saying the nuclear matter was not on the agenda.
“He [Mabuza] is going [there] to deliver a congratulatory message in the same way the Chinese had come to do with President Ramaphosa, and to discuss our plans for Brics. Envoys don’t discuss anything beyond the letter they have. The letter was we would like to invite the Russian president to our country.
“He was not sent to discuss nuclear. If the president wants to discuss any matter, he will pick up the phone and call President Putin. This one is a diplomatic formality,” she said.
Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Khusela Diko, said Mabuza’s visit was to focus on bilateral relationships and the Brics summit.
“The president is on record as having said that this administration supports an energy mix which would include current use of nuclear, for example, in Koeberg, fossil fuels and renewable, amongst others,” Diko said.