South Africa


Malema goes nuclear on Eskom’s future

EFF leader Julius Malema. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jeffrey Abrahams)

Twice in the past month, EFF leader Julius Malema has used high-profile platforms to bat for nuclear energy as a key plank of South Africa’s energy planning. It’s a clear U-turn for the populist leader who was for years vehemently opposed to Zuma’s proposed nuclear deal with Russia.

On Friday, capping a march of thousands of supporters to the Eskom HQ, EFF leader Julius Malema handed over a memorandum to CEO Andre de Ruyter. 

In it, he stated a demand he had first made in February in his debate on the state of the nation:

“Eskom should build nuclear power stations using a build, operate and transfer model with a clear illustration of how the private sector will use their money, operate them for an agreed period, transfer operation and maintenance skills to state-employed engineers, artisans, electricians and other skills needed to operate a nuclear power station.”

In his speech in the pouring rain outside Eskom, Malema did not mention nuclear energy, but it is a prominent part of the three-page memorandum, now in Eskom’s hands. 

The red sea of EFF marchers who marched for nine kilometres from the Innes Free Park to Megawatt Park signals that Malema and the EFF have entered the energy battle as key protagonists. He appears to now be the political leader of a loose coalition of interests pushing for nuclear energy procurement, the maintenance of coal as a key feedstock for the national grid as well as a slowdown in the pace of renewable energy production.

This places Malema in clear opposition to the “green revolution” pledged by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his 2019 State of the Nation Address and the much larger role for the private sector in energy production outlined by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in #Budget2020 last week. 

In addition to the nuclear energy production demands, the EFF also wants Eskom to “…fundamentally review all power purchase agreements with renewable independent power producers because in their current form, all renewable IPP is designed to benefit South Africa’s racist financial sector”, according to the memorandum.

Nuclear — the black option?

Malema and his deputy president Floyd Shivambu have been long-term opponents of independent power producers selling renewable energy in bid windows opened by Eskom. 

There is a growing view across the EFF and sections of the ANC that nuclear is a “black option” for energy professionals who want in on a new market while “renewable energy” is dominated by white capital, in South Africa’s race short-hand.

The reason for this is that the first bid windows featured many European and US multinational companies making a gambit for some of what were then the biggest renewable energy deals in the developing South and also among the most expensive. 

Malema’s audacious Eskom march on Friday also revealed a new political front opening up in the energy wars. The EFF aligned with Transform RSA, the movement led by nuclear energy proponent Adil Nchabeleng who is the most prolific and powerful mover behind the lobby opposing renewable energy procurement by Eskom. Nchabeleng was on the EFF stage on Friday; he is also well regarded in the ANC.

Also aligned with the EFF was the ATM, the one-seat political party led by Vuyo Zungula and Mzwanele Manyi who were also in the front row and at the top table at the march. Manyi was previously the nominal owner of the Gupta family’s media assets when they sold up and skedaddled out of South Africa. The Coal Transporters Forum (CTF) also accompanied the EFF march, blocking roads in Sandon on Friday.

Nchabeleng, with the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and the CTF, took Eskom to court to interdict it from signing new renewables deals. That case was thrown out of court, but the alliance has been sustained. In the decade of state capture, black transport entrepreneurs crowded into coal transport as former Eskom executives Brian Molefe and Matshela Koko distributed coal contracts to small suppliers as part of a coal empowerment drive.

Malema first punts nuclear at Parliament

Malema’s address to Parliament in February 2020 responding to Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address was overshadowed by the counter-allegations of gender abuse the EFF and ANC lobbed at each other.

In the chaos that ensued, the fact that he powerfully punted a nuclear option was lost. In a detailed and numbered response to the SONA, Malema said this:

“Fourthly, build nuclear power stations using a build, operate and transfer model with a clear illustration of how the private sector will use their money, operate them for an agreed period, transfer operation and maintenance skills to state-employed engineers, artisans, electricians and other skills needed to operate a nuclear power station.”

Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency, uses a build, operate and transfer model across the continent where it has enjoyed great success in getting deals from African leaders.

In addition, it also provides the start-up capital for nuclear power stations in vendor financing deals. Rosatom was close to signing an estimated R1-trillion deal which was strongly punted by former president Jacob Zuma who fired two finance ministers for slow-footing his nuclear ambitions. The company is still hoping South Africa will see the light on energy.

Zuma almost achieved the deal with Russia, but it was stopped in court when Judge Lee Bozalek in April 2017 ruled in favour of the case brought by Earthlife Africa Johannesburg and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (Safcei) against government’s plans to build a fleet of nuclear power stations. 

In 2016, Malema set his stall against the nuclear deal. In Parliament, he said that:

“He (Zuma) is chasing the nuclear deal. When (former energy minister Tina Joemat) Pettersson was in Russia… he wanted (former finance minister Nhlanhla) Nene to sign documents given to him by Russians…”

SA’s IRP downgrades nuclear

The pro-nuclear lobby has lost governing party political influence in South Africa – the integrated resource plan launched by Mineral Resources and Energy minister Gwede Mantashe in late 2019 suggested a limited role for nuclear in the future. 

It now appears to have powerful new friends in the EFF which has switched its opposition to nuclear power to active support. 

While the pro-nuclear, anti-renewables energy lobby says the costs of nuclear are more competitive, the cost of water, solar and other power is steadily coming down. Coal-fired power stations are also quickly losing investor interest as financiers turn away from fossil fuels. 

Daily Maverick approached two EFF spokespersons for comment, but did not get a response. DM


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