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South Africa’s renewable ‘nuclear war’


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

South Africa’s transition away from Jacob Zuma’s ignominious bequests of near-concluded nuclear deals is taking shape, but may be far from over. In the past week there were reassurances, through action, on the growing distance from nuclear energy procurement. Important as the assurances are, they also showed how tortuous it is to steer state and policy on to new trajectories.

The tentative message was that the toxic Putin-Zuma imbroglio may be disentangling. Yet, and despite the takeover by the Cyril Ramaphosa order, there is fightback from entrenched pro-Zuma (and in this case pro-nuclear) interests deep within civil society and the civil service.

The conclusion of agreements for government’s purchase of renewable energy from 27 independent power producers, announced for finalisation, was a significant step towards neutralising the need for new nuclear build. Then came the delay through late-night court action by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), which had found a new partner, the pop-up Bell Pottinger-ist civic organisation TransformRSA, part of the Zupta-Black Land First defence network. TransformRSA in its brief existence since 2017 has defended Zuma’s hanging on to power and Sassa’s social grant distribution systems.

These visible manifestations of the passing (or not) of the Zuma pro-nuclear order in the last week are only a small part of the story of South Africa’s ongoing “nuclear war”. There is no finality yet on nuclear retaining its foothold on South Africa’s energy-mix menu, which determines future energy procurement. Personalities, words, briefings and vested interests in the public sector and in nuclear lobbies reveal some of the dimensions of this war.

Consider for starters President Cyril Ramaphosa’s “assurance” at Davos, in January 2018, that “we have excess power right now and we have no money for major nuclear plant building”.

No money for major does not say no money for nuclear. Hence Ramaphosa’s statement appears to be compatible with former energy minister, David Mahlobo, saying previously that South Africa would push ahead with its nuclear expansion but at a slower pace than initially planned. Bear in mind too that in October 2017 the Department of Environmental Affairs authorised the construction of Eskom’s proposed nuclear project at Duynefontein, close to Koeberg in the Western Cape. This is besides the fact that we are often reminded that nuclear is part of the prevailing Integrated Resource Plan 2010-30.

Unless these plans are changed, specifically and explicitly, South Africa might still be on the road to new nuclear build. Nuclear in South Africa is undesirable. Foremost among the reasons is the suspected corruption of the deal (with the Zuma-Putin connection refusing to go away). There is also the knowledge nowadays that South Africa does not need nuclear, and the fact that as long as the problem of safe disposal of nuclear waste is not solved, nuclear energy is not clean. There can be no hiding behind the fact that newer generation nuclear facilities reduce the volume of waste.

Driving personalities for nuclear in the state departments remain fully operational. It is worth flagging a few of the personalities who are central to the country’s current decisions on nuclear. There are many others.

For example, Department of Energy (DoE) director-general Thabane Zulu said to Parliament’s portfolio committee on energy last week that the DoE was preparing a road map to deal with nuclear.

One wouldn’t be surprised if nuclear becomes part of the Integrated Resources Plan because it remains part of the policy on energy,” he told the committee.

Zulu also said: “It is not about whether nuclear is part of the energy mix, but rather how to implement it.”

Zulu had been Zuma’s nuclear point man in the department since October 2015, when the (even more) controversial Senti Thobejane (who had also accompanied Zuma on trips to Russia, and whom Zuma blamed for slow progress) departed mysteriously. It was reported in the last week that Zulu or his department was briefing new energy minister Jeff Radebe.

Better indications of a possible nuclear road ahead will come once Radebe appoints his own advisers, if he chooses to. Until then, the staff (often of Zack or Zuma-hack status) will advise the new minister. Radebe himself may be well qualified when it comes to dealing with the Russians. In November 2017, for example, he led government discussions with Russians in, among others, the energy field. The Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East, Alexander Galushka, confirmed at that event that there were “negotiations conducted regarding nuclear energy”.

Questionable actors and influences notwithstanding, some of the rules of South Africa’s nuclear-or-not game are changing. For one, barely four months ago, in November 2017, Zuma equated opposition against nuclear with Western interests, warning nuclear opponents that “you support the wrong force”. Also, there are credible assurances that the national Budget will not be broken by a nuclear deal.

Gone are the days, too, of fervent replacement of ministers of energy. In Zuma’s nine years in power there were five energy ministers. Lest we forget the succession spectacle: David Mahlobo (October 2017-February 2018), Mmamoloko Kubayi (March-October 2017), Tina Joemat-Pettersson (May 2014-March 2017), Ben Martins (July 2013-May 2014) and Dipuo Peters (May 2009-July 2013).

It was especially in Zuma’s second term that the fervour accumulated. All of the Pettersson-Kubayi-Mahlobo turnover related to Zuma’s impatience to have the Rosatom (the Russian state nuclear energy corporation) deal executed to the liking of Vladimir Putin. The reasons for Zuma’s compulsion to deliver remain one of the mysteries of State Capture Mach Two that need to be unlocked.

South Africa, in this early post-Zuma period, has the all-round acceptance that the one-trillion-rand (excluding the cost of nuclear waste disposal) 9,600 megawatt project is off the table. But there is no space for flippant pronouncements and unaccountable actions. South Africans need frank information and evidence-anchored assurances that nuclear procurement formed no part of the Zuma-exit deal.

They also require explanations of why Zuma wanted to please Putin. It is time, equally, that the state bureaucracy gets cleansed of Zuma’s nuclear deployment legacies. DM


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