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FILE PHOTO: South Africa's President Jacob Zuma addresses an anti-crime meeting in Elsie's River, Cape Town, South Africa May 30, 2017. Picture taken May 30, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/File Photo

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African President Jacob Zuma appointed a close confidant to be energy minister on Tuesday as his government tries to push through one of the biggest nuclear deals in decades.

Zuma's second Cabinet reshuffle in seven months saw him change six ministers, including those for home affairs, education and communications, and axe a vocal critic of his scandal-plagued presidency.

The appointment of David Mahlobo, formerly state security minister, to head the energy ministry will heighten speculation that Zuma is trying to push through the nuclear deal before his second presidential term ends in 2019.

South Africa is preparing to add 9,600 megawatts of nuclear capacity -- equivalent to up to 10 nuclear reactors -- in a contract that could be worth tens of billions of dollars.

Companies including Russia's Rosatom, South Korea's Kepco, France's EDF and Areva, Toshiba-owned Westinghouse, and China's CGN are eyeing the project, which has been criticised by South African civil society groups and the opposition for lacking transparency.

Mmamaloko Kubayi, who was only appointed energy minister in March, was named communications minister on Tuesday, while Blade Nzimande, a fierce critic of Zuma, was removed as minister of higher education and training.

Zuma's last reshuffle, in March, saw respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan sacked, causing the rand and other financial assets to weaken and helped prompt the downgrading of South Africa's credit ratings to "junk".

Contrary to speculation, Zuma did not appoint Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, his ex-wife and former African Union chair, to a Cabinet position ahead of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party's December elective conference.

Zuma is said to favour Dlamini Zuma to take over from him as ANC leader, instead of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

(Reporting by Joe Brock and Alexander Winning; Editing by James Macharia and Catherine Evans)

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