Zuma in Moscow (from 2014)

RUMOURS have surrounded President Jacob Zuma’s trip to Moscow this week, given the visit’s extended duration, the absence of any official programme, the mention of “rest periods”, and the fact that Zuma did not bring senior ministers with him.

Russia’s state-owned nuclear corporation, Rosatom, has been at the centre of such speculation as a result of the estimated R1-trillion cost of the company’s proposed nuclear plants in South Africa. Critics have complained that Russian President Vladimir Putin might use Zuma’s unsupervised visit to exert improper influence over him. Such claims, however, are almost certainly false.

First, much can be learnt from a five-day visit to this beautiful country. It is a resource economy that tragically lacks dynamic manufacturing industries. Its leaders manipulate anti-western sentiment to obscure their own corruption. And it has turned into a party-state run by a secretive security apparatus.

Russia is very similar.

Second, Moscow is an excellent place for an overworked leader to rest. On past visits, Zuma has stayed in the presidential suite of the President Hotel in Moscow. Run by the department of affairs of the Russian president himself, the hotel was built to facilitate the “foreign policy activities” of the highest structures of the Soviet state. The presidential suite enjoys two bathrooms (one with Jacuzzi and shower) and a safe large enough to accommodate bulging briefcases.

The hotel is in the heart of Moscow, allowing Zuma to visit Red Square, the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum, and the historical Alexander Garden.

Who can blame him if he takes in some delightful rural idylls, too, such as the Mashinostroitelny Zavod facility of Rosatom’s nuclear fuel subsidiary company, or perhaps the picturesque Kurchatov Institute nuclear research centre?

As a result of the privatisation of the Russian state, further unique tourism opportunities abound. Country of Tourism Ltd, for example, partners with the Sokol air base to give tourists an “edge of space experience” in a MiG-29 jet that Zuma might enjoy, and all for just €13,500 a trip.

Third, Russian policy makers reportedly want to learn from South Africa’s renowned policy successes. State airline Aeroflot, for example, recently launched a budget airline strikingly similar to the internationally celebrated Mango.

Readers will be familiar with the joke about Aeroflot’s in-flight service: “Do you want a meal?” says the stewardess. “What are the options?” says the passenger. “Yes or no,” says the stewardess.

There would seem to be opportunities for synergistic learning or even a shared training facility for the two airlines’ cabin crews.

Fourth, Zuma is believed to have taken an interest in a public health initiative in Russia — the closing down of dozens of McDonald’s outlets around the country after staged “sanitary inspections” by the Federal Consumer Protection Service.

The crackdown has been interpreted as a product of anti-US sentiment stirred up during the conflict in Ukraine. It is believed that Zuma may soon feel tempted to launch a similar crackdown against the Shanduka-run McDonald’s franchise in South Africa.

Finally, it is impossible to imagine that a politician as astute as Zuma would expose himself to ridicule by travelling to Moscow, unaccompanied by senior colleagues, to receive personal financial inducements.

As Moscow-based investigative journalist John Helmer has shown, payments made to influence politicians or government officials in any country can be easily channelled to their relatives by the huge state banks and other financial institutions that are involved in the financing of nuclear power partnerships.

The nuclear procurement is unaffordable and irrational, and it will be a sad testimony to the decay of the African National Congress if it is pushed through. If such a deal is done, Putin will be greeted on his next state visit to South Africa by protesters, shouting vyplatit’ den’gi! (“Pay back the money!”).

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

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