President Jacob Zuma Picture: Rogan Ward/Reuters

Cape Town - President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday parachuted loyalist David Mahlobo into the energy portfolio in a Cabinet reshuffle seen as designed to give new impetus to his contested plans to bed down a major contract to build new nuclear power plants.

Zuma moved Mahlobo from state security to replace Mmamoloko Kubayi as energy minister, a post she has only held since his last reshuffle in May. However Kubayi, who was moved to the communication ministry in Tuesday's Cabinet shake-up, has been slow in putting nuclear procurement back on track after the Western Cape High Court set aside ministerial determinations to build plants with a combined capacity of 9 600 megawatt.

But Mahlobo's appointment was overshadowed by Zuma's decision to axe South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande from Cabinet. Nzimande made way as minister of higher education for Hlengiwe Mkhize who had been home affairs minister. That portfolio was given to Ayanda Dlodlo, while Bongani Thomas Bongo was made the new minister of state security.

Zuma named Buti Manamela, a Young Communist League leader, as the new deputy minister of higher education. 

This failed to appease the South African Communist Party, which called Nzimande's removal a step of extreme provocation. 

"This is a clear declaration of war on the SACP by President Zuma because it is quite clear that the decision has nothing to do with strengthening the State or Cabinet. In any case, he has retained deadwood in that Cabinet, people who are laced with corruption and scandals yet he is not removing them," SACP second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila said.

"This reshuffle was actually a decoy. There was no reshuffle actually. The intention was just to remove comrade Blade, essentially that is what Zuma has done."

President Jacob Zuma has appointed former State Security Minister David Mahlobo, one of the president's allies, as Energy Minister. Photo: GCIS

Political analyst and academic Stephen Friedman disagreed, saying Zuma may have sidelined a vocal critic in Nzimande but his real motive was to move ahead with a nuclear power expansion drive that had hit legal obstacles.

"I think it is a bit of a smokescreen. I think that quite frankly the nuclear deal is more important. Whether that will work is another matter."

He pointed out that firstly, any new ministerial directives and eventual deal would have to stand up to legal scrutiny, and that secondly, there was a perception that Zuma's preferred partner in a nuclear build may be Russia, but that others players in a fractious political environment may favour French or Chinese bidders.

Friedman said it was unsurprising the SACP signalled that, despite its outrage over Nzimande, it would not pull out of the tripartite alliance with the ANC, just two months shy of the ANC's elective conference where Zuma will fight for his political survival.

The party said it would still consider whether to leave Nzimande in Parliament as an ordinary MP or to bring him back to party headquarters. But Minister of Sport Thulas Nxesi, also the SACP's deputy national chairman, said in reference to Zuma that the alliance was stronger than "one man". 

Friedman commented: "Of course they are not going to pull out of the alliance, you don't pull out two months ahead of an elective conference because then you can't vote." 

The SACP found support from ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe who praised Nzimande as "brilliant, full of energy and working hard".

"He is now removed. The ANC will continue using him and we hoping that he will not resign from Parliament because we still need his energy, we still need his knowledge," said Mantashe.

Trade union leader Zwelinzima Vavi, like Nzimande a former Zuma supporter turned critic, said the reshuffle was a bid to consolidate power and push ahead with nuclear procurement, and was not in any way informed by policy imperatives or a desire on the president's part to serve the national good.

"It is about Jacob Zuma first and the country last. It is not about advancing any revolutionary agenda. It also has nothing to do with advancing the republic," said Vavi, the general secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions.

"It is about consolidating power in Cabinet, It is also about consolidating power in time ahead of (the ANC conference in) December 2017 and the elections in 2019." 

Energy analyst Chris Yelland commented that it was worrying that Mahlobo had no discernable experience of the energy field, but said this appeared to be par for the course with Zuma in the energy portfolio as the same applied to his two predecessors in the post.

"There is really no possibility of them getting experience of the sector in a short period of time."