Zuma Targets Nuclear Revival, Communist Critic in Cabinet Change

Updated on
  • President’s ally Mahlobo moves from state security to energy
  • Communist Party’s Nzimande fired as higher education minister

South African President Jacob Zuma named a close ally as energy minister and fired the leader of the communist party, which has criticized his leadership, in a cabinet reshuffle just two months before he’s due to step down as leader of the ruling African National Congress.

Zuma in his 10th cabinet reshuffle since 2009, named David Mahlobo as energy minister and ANC lawmaker Bongani Bongo as state security minister, a post previously held by Mahlobo, the Presidency said in a statement on Tuesday. Mmamoloko Kubayi, who had held the energy portfolio, will replace Ayanda Dlodlo as head of the communications ministry. Blade Nzimande, the secretary-general of the South African Communist Party, was fired as higher education minister.

The changes at the energy ministry could help Zuma revive plans to build new nuclear power plants that the opposition and a number of top ANC officials say the country cannot afford. The firing of Nzimande threatens the communist party’s traditional support for the ANC and removes from the government a supporter of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to take over from Zuma as head of the ANC. The president is backing Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former head of the African Union Commission and his ex-wife, for the post.

“The most crucial move is David Mahlobo’s appointment to the energy ministry,” said Anne Fruhauf, vice president at New York-based risk adviser Teneo Intelligence. “His predecessor, albeit loyal to Zuma, was considered too junior and inexperienced to advance the interests of the Zuma faction in the energy sector. Mahlobo may be the bulldozer Zuma needs in this post.”

Nuclear Power

Zuma has championed the building of as many as eight reactors, which could generate 9,600 megawatts of energy starting from 2023 and cost as much as 1 trillion-rand ($75 billion). The Energy Ministry’s own research shows additional nuclear power probably won’t be needed until 2037. In April, the Western Cape High Court ordered the government to hold public hearings and a parliamentary debate on the nuclear program, delaying its implementation.

The rand weakened as much as 1.1 percent against the dollar, the most among 24 emerging market currencies tracked by Bloomberg, and was trading 0.8 percent lower at 13.4271 as of 2 p.m. in Johannesburg. Yields on benchmark local bonds due in December 2026 jumped 11 basis points to 8.75 percent.

The communist party slammed Nzimande’s firing, saying it had brought its alliance with the ANC to the brink of “disintegration.” It vowed to continue to speak out against corruption that it says has become increasingly pervasive under Zuma’s watch.

“The removal of Dr. Nzimande from the cabinet is part of Zuma’s maneuvers to secure successful election of his ordained successor at the forthcoming ANC December national conference,” the SACP said in an emailed statement.

Zuma didn’t appoint Dlamini-Zuma to his cabinet -- a move that was widely expected after her appointment as a lawmaker last month. Zuma didn’t provide reasons for the changes in his statement, and his spokesman Bongani Ngqulunga didn’t answer a call to his mobile phone.

— With assistance by Paul Vecchiatto

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