22 July 2024 | 03:27 AM

EXCLUSIVE: Looking for Mr. Nuclear

Key Takeaways

Senti Thobejane, President Jacob Zuma’s former point man on South Africa’s proposed R1 trillion nuclear deal, appears to have gone to ground since his sudden departure as energy adviser in late 2015.

Back then he was riding high.

He was not only advisor to Minister of Energy Tina Joemat-Pettersson, but had outlasted her two predecessors, Dipuo Peters and Ben Martins, reportedly because of his status as Zuma’s personal go-to-guy on the nuclear project.

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One senior Department Of Energy (DoE) official told amaBhungane that he was known in the Department of Energy as “Mr Nuclear”.

Then, on September 15, 2015, Business Day reported that Thobejane had been fired.

There was never any explanation or comment from Joemat-Pettersson or the DoE; he simply dropped out of sight.

Not long afterwards, amaBhungane received a tipoff from a highly placed source who had worked with Thobejane at the DoE.

According to the source, Thobejane had been fired after his behaviour in the murky discussions around a nuclear deal had riled senior officials, including the president.

The claim was potentially defamatory and based on insider gossip that was almost impossible to verify.

It went something like this:

Thobejane had travelled to Russia at the same time as Zuma’s mysterious “medical visit” in August 2014.
During that trip an understanding was reached with unidentified Russians which, claimed the source, included the payment of some kind of commission.

Neither Zuma nor Russian President Vladimir Putin may have been aware of this alleged understanding, but when Zuma returned to Russia in May 2015 for the World War II 70th anniversary commemoration event, Putin was less than impressed that the nuclear deal had still not been approved.

Then, when Zuma was in China for a second World War II commemoration on September 3, 2015, Putin refused to meet with him.
Joemat-Pettersson fired Thobejane just days later. Thobejane had then gone to Zuma to plead his case but the president had refused to meet with him.
Thobejane was now apparently a marked man and had gone into hiding.

AmaBhungane had no evidence to back up these extraordinary claims and, like many such juicy tips, this one was filed away awaiting corroborating evidence.

Then in late 2016 the same source reiterated the claim: Thobejane was missing in action — not seen or heard from by anyone for a long time.

If true, this might give some credence to the rumours about the circumstances of his sudden departure.

The Presidency was no help. They said, “Mr Thobejane does not work for the Presidency. We have no knowledge of his movements. The Presidency also does not comment on rumours and gossip.”

The DoE referred us to the ministry.

Joemat-Pettersson’s special advisor, Allan Taylor, denied any knowledge of the allegations.

He said: “I am advised that Mr Thobejane resigned for reasons of which we are not aware… Mr Thobejane himself would be best placed to answer this question.”

That much was obvious, but for weeks amaBhungane had tried in vain to track down Thobejane to put these claims to the test.

Using a range of telephone numbers sourced from credit records and contacts, amaBhungane repeatedly tried to contact him, without success.

Allegations were messaged to a live WhatsApp number without response.

A mansion in the exclusive Pretoria suburb of Waterkloof Ridge, listed in credit records as one of his most recent addresses, was derelict and clearly uninhabited.

Neighbours said it had been in that state for many months.

At another residential address linked to his name a man who claimed to be a tenant at first denied being in contact with Thobejane, and then suggested leaving a message for him.

AmaBhungane subsequently confirmed that the man is a relative of Thobejane’s, but follow-up phone calls to him elicited angry responses.

The allegations were also shared with this relative with a request to pass them on to Thobejane.

According to the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission, Thobejane has been involved in a number of companies, including one called Varvara.

CIPC records show that Varvara was founded in May 2016, with Thobejane listed as a co-director.

AmaBhungane visited the Kempton Park premises given as the company’s physical address, but found the office locked.

However, a worker from a neighbouring office and a security guard confirmed that Thobejane occasionally comes to the office for meetings.

Thobejane’s business partners at Varvara, including co-director Edwin Bogopa, would not divulge information on him but were careful to distance the company from Thobejane’s stint at the DoE.

One of Thobejane’s partners, Stanley Whiting, told amaBhungane that Varvara is a consortium set up to bid for a Transnet tender and that Thobejane was brought in as an adviser.

He added that he had not seen Thobejane in several months.

It would appear that Thobejane has indeed slipped into obscurity after having been, in the words of two senior National Treasury officials who dealt with him at the height of his influence, the “driving force” behind nuclear negotiations.

Nevertheless, the search for him has fleshed out some of the background to his rise and fall.

Thobejane had come to the DoE with an impressive CV, reflecting among other things a United Nations scholarship to become one of the first African National Congress (ANC) students to be sent to the United States, where he obtained a Masters degree in Radiation Science from Georgetown University.

But Thobejane also brought baggage with him.

This includes controversy over a wasteful contract while he was at the helm of Limpopo’s Health Department, and over a salary increase he received while serving as the chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa).

Government gazettes also suggest that Thobejane struggled with his own finances around the time he joined the DoE.

The gazette for September 2012 shows that Thobejane’s estate was insolvent.

In 2012 he was made adviser to then Energy Minister, Dipuo Peters, allegedly at Zuma’s wish.

When Ben Martins took over from Peters in mid-2013, he stayed on as his adviser.

And, like a family heirloom, he was then passed on to Tina Joemat-Pettersson when she stepped into the position of minister during the cabinet reshuffle of May 2014.

It is unusual for advisers in the department to be foisted on ministers in the way that he was. It would normally be up to ministers to choose their own.

But Thobejane had crafted a special role for himself as a lynchpin in the massive nuclear deal.

There had long been signs that Russia, in ongoing secret negotiations, had secured its place as front-runner in South Africa’s efforts to procure 9,600 megawatts of new nuclear capacity.

Then came some firm evidence of this. In February 2015 details of an agreement signed the previous September in Vienna emerged, showing a commitment that Russian technology would be used in the future fleet of nuclear plants.

The document, signed by Joemat-Pettersson and her Russian counterpart — with Thobejane in attendance — appeared to lock South Africa into a dependence on Russia for its nuclear needs for at least two decades, giving the Russians the power to block South Africa from doing business with any other nuclear vendor.

For most of 2015 Thobejane made headlines as a key figure behind the deal. He was not only advising Joemat-Pettersson but the President himself, at times accompanying Zuma on trips to Russia.

Although the Presidency denied that Thobejane was a formal advisor to Zuma, sources familiar with him during this time said that he was indeed “Zuma’s man”.

Senior Treasury officials, who spoke to amaBhungane on condition of anonymity, spoke favourably of Thobejane’s negotiating skills and willingness to compromise while engaged in talks with Treasury over nuclear procurement.

But other sources paint a picture of a man who was bullishly ambitious and who would “tell everyone who would listen that he’d be a minister”.

His former colleague said that Thobejane was always present when nuclear was being discussed and thought of himself as “more powerful than the minister because of his closeness to Zuma”.

He appears to have had a fraught relationship with Joemat-Pettersson precisely because of this, often defying her instructions.

In February 2015 amaBhungane reported that Thobejane personally intervened in an ongoing battle at Necsa, the state-owned nuclear corporation where he had once worked.

Thobejane allegedly sided with Necsa’s CEO Phumzile Tshelane — another key proponent of the nuclear deal — who had fallen out with most of the corporation’s board members and had been suspended for transgressions that included making donations of public funds to the ANC.

To plead Tshelane’s case, Thobejane allegedly went around Minister Joemat-Pettersson and straight to Zuma.

Joemat-Pettersson then appeared to have come under pressure from above to shield Tshelane after she had initially encouraged his suspension.

Despite bridling at his challenge to her own authority the minister could not remove Thobejane while he enjoyed Zuma’s protection, according to Thobejane’s former colleague.

Another factor was Thobejane’s refusal to undergo full security vetting — a requirement of someone in his position.

Sources including a former DoE official who had oversight of Thobejane’s vetting confirmed that he refused to fully participate.

Allegedly, Thobejane had already undergone a preliminary screening during which a number of red flags were raised about his past financial record, and this had made him reluctant to undergo further vetting.

It seems that Thobejane’s unwillingness to be vetted did not keep him from remaining in his position as adviser for years, though it could have been a useful pretext to get rid of him when he was no longer in favour.

By September 2015 it would appear that Zuma had had a change of heart about him.

Two inside sources, including his former colleague, told amaBhungane that Zuma was growing impatient with the slow progress on the nuclear deal and was under pressure from Putin.

When the axe fell, it was brutally swift, just 11 days after Zuma’s alleged snub by Putin in Beijing.

The officials who spoke to amaBhungane say that in the midst of negotiations with Treasury Thobejane suddenly received a call during a meeting telling him that he had been dismissed.

He didn’t return after lunch.

Thobejane was replaced in negotiations with Treasury by another controversial figure, Thabane Zulu, who became director general at the DoE in October 2015.

In 2011, while director general of Human Settlements, Zulu received a suspicious deposit of R1.4—million shortly before taking part in the awarding of a R10—billion contract.

After initially denying receiving the amount, he claimed it was back-pay from a previous employer.

The senior Treasury officials say that the DoE’s stance has hardened under Zulu, who has pushed for an expanded deal and attempted to sideline Treasury.

The fact that the nuclear deal appeared to have stalled, in large part because of public opposition and legal challenges, was a blow to Thobejane.

Ultimately, his willingness to work with Treasury officials and compromise may have cost him his job, leading to the more inflexible Zulu replacing him.

But none of this fully explains why Thobejane would effectively go into hiding after his removal from the DoE.

An energy industry insider, who is also well plugged into government, told amaBhungane: “Apparently SSA [State Security Agency] are still looking for him but even his family aren’t disclosing where he is. But I’ve been told: He’s in shit.”

Mr Thobejane, if you’re out there, please make contact so we can set the record straight.

The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism produced this story. Like it? Bean amaB supporter and help us domore. Know more? Send us
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Warren Thompson and Micah Reddy

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