DAILY MAVERICK WEBINAR
Journalist Karyn Maughan takes us inside SA’s dodgy nuclear deal with Russia’s Rosatom
Investigative journalist Karyn Maughan joined a Daily Maverick webinar on Wednesday to speak about her new book, Nuclear: Inside South Africa’s secret deal, which looks at the aborted R1.3-trillion nuclear deal, Jacob Zuma’s alleged poisoning and pushback by environmental activists.
Speaking in a webinar about the 2017 court case that overturned a proposed nuclear deal between South Africa and Russia’s Rosatom, investigative journalist Karyn Maughan said environmental activists Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid had “shifted history”.
Maughan was speaking on Wednesday during the virtual launch for her book, Nuclear: Inside South Africa’s secret deal, which she co-wrote with former National Treasury insider Kirsten Pearson.
The nuclear deal case saw Advocate David Unterhalter challenging section 34 of the Constitution, which allowed the Department of Energy and Eskom to procure nuclear power, said Maughan. The Western Cape High Court ruled that the nuclear procurement processes were unlawful and were set aside.
The case revolved around former president Jacob Zuma’s plan to procure 9.6 gigawatts of nuclear energy from Russian company Rosatom.
This push for the Russian deal is also linked to claims that Zuma was poisoned, said Maughan.
“It’s almost on the level of absolute absurdity that he was the target of a nefarious plot, which is a version that is strongly held by many in his inner circle,” said Maughan.
Reading a passage from the book, Maughan quoted Zuma’s conversation with his son, Duduzane, on YouTube where he said he knew his “friend” Russian president Vladimir Putin would help him.
In the interview, Zuma claimed he was targeted for his political beliefs and his role in fighting apartheid. He also claimed that South African doctors had struggled to identify the substance that was in his body and, for that reason, turned to Russian doctors.
Nompumelelo Ntuli Zuma, the second of Zuma’s four wives, was accused of poisoning the former president.
“She was a profound victim. She was removed from Nkandla. She was woken up in the middle of the night by SSA [State Security Agency] operatives and attached to lie detectors,” said Maughan.
“[Ntuli Zuma] still lives in a shroud of suspicion even though Elaine Zungu [KwaZulu-Natal’s then acting director of public prosecutions] said ‘we can’t prosecute because there was no statement from Zuma and there was no evidence’,” said Maughan.
Daily Maverick’s Ferial Haffajee, who hosted the webinar, said she was “shocked by the intensity” of the testimonies by SSA operatives at the State Capture Commission on Zuma’s alleged poisoning.
When a viewer asked about the nature of the poison that was purportedly found in Zuma’s body, Maughan said that in 2017, then Minister of State Security David Mahlobo said they would never reveal what kind of poison it was.
When “officials were trying to do their jobs, they were cast as spies working for the West”, said Maughan.
She said that when she interviewed former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, he said: “People think I’m brave, but in the face of pressure to sign off [on the deal], I asked myself: Did I fear the head of state or did I fear what the consequences of signing this off would be for the country?”
In 2018, Nene told the State Capture Commission that he lost his job because he had refused to toe the line when it came to projects like the nuclear deal.
Speaking about the deal, Maughan said “there was so much secrecy about it. Treasury was kept out of the loop because Zuma didn’t want there to be a discussion about the pros and cons of nuclear energy.
“[The nuclear deal] was about an individual who wanted to drive a deal without going through the necessary systems,” said Maughan.
There was speculation that Zuma had been promised kickbacks once the deal was sealed. Maughan asked Zuma whether he had been paid to push the Rosatom deal, and that his response had been: “Everyone says that, but it is propaganda.”
“There is no concrete evidence of payment. Does that mean there was no payment? No,” said Maughan.
When asked whether Rosatom was still active in SA, Maughan said they were. “They’re involved in doing educational drives among children about nuclear.
“When they [Rosatom] responded to our questions, they basically denied any wrongdoing. There have also been accounts from people who were afraid to speak out in public … There’s been a mass decimation of people who were critical of nuclear energy.
“One woman had a dead dog slung on her lawn. We have lost a lot of scientists who felt threatened and left the country, which is a tragedy for our knowledge community,” said Maughan.
Even Lekalakala and McDaid were threatened and harassed, but their tenacity is a valuable lesson to us all to pay attention and monitor what’s happening in this country, said Maughan. DM
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