Former president Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUPPLIED
Former president Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUPPLIED

Former President Jacob Zuma pushed for a nuclear deal with Russia that could have cost SA more than R1 trillion as early as 2011, according to public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan.

In an affidavit filed at the Zondo Commission into state capture, where he will give evidence later this month, Gordhan has revealed how Zuma met him over the need for nuclear energy in 2013, during his first stint as finance minister.

During that meeting, Gordhan says, the then president “indicated that South Africa needed nuclear power and that a process should be initiated to procure it”.

The potential deal with Russia, at a time when experts were arguing that nuclear was neither needed nor affordable was at the centre of much of the political intrigue and allegations of corruption during the Zuma era, and would be a factor in the firing of two finance ministers.

The removals shook confidence in SA, fueled a slump in the rand and wiped billions of rand off the value of the country’s companies as the stock market dropped.   

Gordhan said he responded by saying that “it would be appropriate to follow lawful procurement procedure for such an expensive project to avoid becoming mired in scandal.  

A year later, he would be removed and replaced with Nhlanhla Nene, who has detailed how Treasury was shut out of key decision-making processes linked to a potential nuclear deal. Nene testified he was himself fired in 2015, after Zuma became “hostile” towards him over his refusal to sign a guarantee letter that the president wanted to give to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Nene said he told Zuma he couldn’t sign “without having first interrogated the financial and fiscal implications.

In his statement to the Zondo Commission, Gordhan now says Treasury first became aware of the nuclear deal in 2013 – when the Department of Energy approached it about “a draft cooperation deal to be signed with Russia.”

Officials in the Treasury “raised concerns with this draft agreement and its clear objective of creating firm fiscal commitments to Russia by South Africa”.

Cabinet established the National Nuclear Energy Executive Coordinating Committee intended to “provide oversight and make decisions regarding a nuclear energy policy and the new build programme, following investigations into costing, financing, technical and operational options” in November 2011, Gordhan says in his affidavid.

It was evident then that Zuma “wished to procure the 9.6GW of nuclear power generating capacity for South Africa from Russia. Such a transaction has been estimated to cost in excess of R1 trillion, if not more”.

Zuma later took over the chairmanship of the Nuclear Committee in June 2014, after it was converted to the Energy Security Cabinet Subcommittee. Its members included former state security minister David Mahlobo, minister of trade and industry Rob Davies and then minister of public enterprises Lynne Brown.

Gordhan says the Zondo Commission should “investigate the rationale for these changes and the activities undertaken by the ESCC in advancing ‘the nuclear deal’”.

Zuma’s lawyers have been notified that he has been implicated by Gordhan’s evidence, but have yet to indicate whether they will seek to cross-examine him.

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