The Big Read: The Zuma-Putin bromance
A trip to Russia could not have come at a better time for embattled President Jacob Zuma.
As he flew out to Moscow on Sunday, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela was tightening the screws, chastising him for what she deemed to be an inadequate response to her report on how he had "benefited unduly" from the R246-million upgrades to his KwaDakwadunuse private homestead in Nkandla.
Madonsela's letter, in which she gave Zuma two weeks to explain why he should not reimburse the state a portion of the money spent on non-security features, was made public just a few days after Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema pushed Nkandla back to the top of the public discourse by dramatically disrupting a parliamentary session.
These, and the fact that the president's lawyers have finally relented in the face of a DA legal challenge for access to the "spy tapes", must have weighed heavily on Zuma's mind as he jetted off for the last days of the Russian summer.
The government has called the six-day trip a "working visit", saying Zuma is in the Russian Federation to discuss cooperation between the countries and trade and investment opportunities.
"The visit will further strengthen the excellent bilateral relations with a view to consolidating and opening new avenues towards job creation, skills development, exchange and transfer of technology and trade and investment," said the International Relations Ministry.
But strangely, Zuma's delegation on the trip does not include Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies or any of his colleagues in the cabinet's economic cluster.
Accompanying Zuma are International Relations Deputy Minister Nomaindia Mfeketo and, curiously, State Security Minister David Mahlobo. If the main purpose of the visit is indeed to discuss bilateral trade, why take only the spy boss and a deputy foreign affairs minister?
To add to the mystery, senior executives at the SABC tell this columnist that none of its journalists assigned to cover the president accompanied him to Russia. The president never goes abroad without the public broadcaster in tow.
Closer scrutiny of the government statement on the trip - issued on Saturday afternoon following questions from the Sunday Times about Zuma going on holiday - reveals that the president spent his first three days in Russia in "low-key meetings" and using "the period to rest".
Given his punishing schedule during the election campaign earlier this year, his poor health and the tumultuous nature of the first three months of his second term in office, Zuma probably needs a rest.
But why Russia?
Zuma and Russian President Vladimir Putin have become pretty close of late, meeting at every available opportunity.
During the Brics summit in Brazil soon after the World Cup, they were described as closer to each other than to the leaders of the other member countries, Brazil, India and China.
When Zuma and Putin hold talks at the Kremlin tomorrow it will be the fourth time they have met in 15 months. This excludes the telephonic conversations they are said to have on a regular basis.
They are to hold further private talks at least twice before the end of the year - at the UN General Assembly next month and at the G-20 meeting in Australia in November.
What is so important that the two have to meet so often?
According to Saturday's statement, tomorrow's meeting "will also focus on developments on critical international issues of mutual concern, including, but not limited to, the situation in Syria, and the Israel-Palestine matter, as well as developments in Ukraine ."
In short, Putin will be seeking Zuma's backing in his confrontation with the West over Russia's alleged aggressive behaviour towards Ukraine. Russia is in desperate need of friends from the "developing world" as it takes on the US and its traditional European allies.
Like China and many other powerful economies, the Kremlin also views South Africa as strategic to success in the new scramble for African markets.
Of course, there is also the matter of the R1-trillion South African nuclear-building project that the Russians are said to be keen to get their hands on.
But what does Zuma derive from his relationship with Putin, in general, and the current trip, specifically?
Seeing that the most senior member of his small delegation is the intelligence minister, it is difficult not to speculate about the trip having something to do with state security. After all, Putin - like Zuma - has a very strong intelligence background.
He is also the 21st century's biggest political survivor, having successfully fought off attempts from some of Russia's powerful oligarchs to unseat him.
Is our president, whose supporters believe the likes of Malema are backed by powerful business interests who want him removed from office, in Moscow to compare notes with the ultimate survivor?