Jacob Zuma. Picture: REUTERS
Jacob Zuma. Picture: REUTERS

Every time President Jacob Zuma does something momentous, like reshuffle his Cabinet, the overwhelming response is that things can’t get any worse. But we have come to learn that they can and — as happened on Tuesday — they just did. The appointment of David Mahlobo, the singularly untalented "intelligence minister", as the new minister of energy is one of these moments.

After the appointment of Faith Muthambi, who first presided over the destruction of the SABC and who now holds the delicate matter of the public service wage bill in her hands, and that of Mosebenzi Zwane, who as mining minister has rendered the mining sector uninvestible, there was a sense that we had reached the bottom.

But Mahlobo’s appointment and that of his replacement, Bongani Bongo, plumb new depths of cynicism and self-interest on the part of Zuma.

First, this time round Zuma consulted none of the other officials in the ANC top six, making full use of his presidential powers without reference to the collective leadership that was once such an important element of ANC political practice. That has been completely disposed of now.

Second, it is clear that Mahlobo — not known for his sophistication but known mostly for his loyalty — has been put in the energy portfolio to drive home the deals that the president wants landed.

Top of the list is the nuclear procurement. In the past few weeks, the pro-nuclear lobby has tried to send out signals to the market that the deal is still on. The announcement of the approval of the Koeberg site — not really a material factor at this point — has been well publicised and advertised in a sign of faith that nuclear energy is still on track.

This is important for Zuma. Although he has failed in what he set out to do when he began his second term in 2009 — build 9.6GW of nuclear power and a fleet of six to eight reactors — it is vital that he demonstrate to his Russian counterpart that at least the foundation for one new power plant has been put in place.

There are several other deals in the energy space. Most notable is September’s agreement with Russia’s Rosgeo to drill wells into the seabed off the South African coast at a cost of $400m, earning the right to sell billions of dollars of gas. As it happens, Mahlobo was there at the signing and there is talk of a black economic empowerment consortium that will get a free carry in the deal.

Bongo’s appointment is just as venal. Like Mahlobo, Bongo has no track record. His only remarkable achievement is loyalty to Mahlobo. In effect, this makes Mahlobo minister of energy and intelligence at the same time.

Two other things were notable about the reshuffle. First is the dropping of Blade Nzimande from the Cabinet. This has been a long time coming, with Nzimande and Zuma now open political enemies. As such, Nzimande’s removal doesn’t illustrate anything new. The ANC and the South African Communist Party are now at loggerheads in the ANC’s factional fight.

Second is Zuma’s decision not to appoint Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to the Cabinet. Many observers had believed that this would be the prime objective of his next reshuffle. As a result, her nonappointment has been interpreted to mean that Zuma has lost faith in her as his presidential pick for the ANC. This is a bit of stretch of interpretation. It makes no sense to appoint Dlamini-Zuma to a government post right now when for the next two months it is imperative for Zuma’s own succession plan that she is on the ground full-time campaigning.

More than ever before, the reshuffle was not about governing at all. It was about Jacob Zuma satisfying his immediate needs to the detriment of all around him.