Why SA's nuclear plan is everyone's business


Recently, the chair of the South African Parliament’s Energy Portfolio committee, Fikile Majola, stuck out his neck. Speaking to the media about the proposed nuclear deal, Majola called the process ‘irreversible’ and promised the Parliamentary process would be ‘robust’.

This is good news, because despite reassurances from the Minister of Energy, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, that the deal would be transparent, many remain deeply sceptical. We have already heard of pressure being placed on National Treasury to approve the deal.

It would appear that there are serious reservations regarding the cost model being proposed, which will surely see South Africans committed for decades. In addition to cost, there are safety and environmental issues to be considered; as well as the National Development Plan and its alternative options to nuclear.

The South African government's dogged pursuit of nuclear power is confusing, to say the least

It seems of course that this government – President Jacob Zuma and the minister in particular – are hell-bent on the nuclear option to provide South Africa with 9600MW of nuclear power. The integrated resource plan (IRP) is the primary policy guide and describes a future energy mix that includes, but is not limited to, nuclear energy. But, aside from the IRP, the National Development Plan has a clear commitment to an ‘energy mix’ that would include renewable energy sources.

Government’s dogged pursuit of nuclear above everything else is therefore confusing, to say the least. Joemat-Pettersson has said that the deal would create thousands of jobs and also place a considerable order to local industrial enterprises, worth at least US$10 billion. That really does sound like arms deal déjà vu and the so-called National and Defence Industrial Participation Plans.

Joemat-Pettersson repeated this in Parliament in May this year. Apparently, according to energy officials, there will be further contracts and sub-contracts signed as a result of various procurement processes. In addition, framework agreements were signed with, among others, France and China.

One cannot help but feel that Majola will need all the support he can get when the matter eventually and inevitably comes to Parliament. The nuclear deal will dwarf the arms deal of 1999 in both size as well as its potential for corruption. Is it a coincidence, one wonders, that Zuma himself is chairing the cabinet energy sub-committee on corruption and has handed the energy portfolio to a minister known to do his personal bidding?

Yet Majola seems well aware of the political context. He was keen to quote from the African National Congress’ (ANC’s) own National General Council document, which states that government must commit to a ‘full, transparent and thorough cost-benefit analysis of the nuclear procurement process.’

Of course Majola is not naïve, and his best intentions may well be stymied. Despite resolutions going back to the ANC conference at Polokwane, Parliament has shown itself to be far more deferential to the executive than ever before, one might argue.

SA's nuclear deal will dwarf the 1999 arms deal both in size and potential for corruption

The hatchet job it did on the Nkandla issue, the Protection of State Information Bill as well as the speaker’s own role in diminishing Parliament’s authority do not augur well for Majola’s prospects.

Just last week, the Department of Energy classified reports by three international consultancies looking at cost models for the nuclear build as ‘secret’. This means they will not be made available to the public. The Open Democracy Advice Centre on the instruction of Business Day newspaper requested the reports. The refusal will be appealed, but that might well be too little too late. Again, this is reminiscent of the arms deal when, in 1999, then Treasury official Roland White warned that South Africa’s commitment to the arms deal would depend on its ‘appetite for risk’.

Perhaps the Department of Energy does not seek to make the public privy to such cost warnings regarding the nuclear deal? It’s hard not to be drawn to this incontrovertible conclusion. Section 217 of the constitution is quite clear regarding procurement processes when it says they should be, ‘in accordance with a system which is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost effective…’

Parliament also has a constitutional duty to ensure that it exercises oversight over the executive. Majola has indicated his intention to do so, and has already declared his intention to not simply ‘rubber stamp’ what the executive has argued for. He might find himself under political pressure very soon, despite saying he will not be watching his back. If anything, Majola needs to be supported by those in civil society and elsewhere who know that this nuclear deal is all of our business, and that there is no place for secrecy when the state is about to commit us – and future generations – to billions of rands in expenditure.

Judith February, Consultant, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

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