The Nuclear Meltdown That Is The Inevitable Result Of Greater Competition For Junior Partner Status In A Possible Coalition Government In South Africa

Photograph Source: Gary van der Merwe – CC BY-SA 3.0

Last month, Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the self-styled leftist party that is the third largest political party in the South African Parliament, announced that, if elected to power, an EFF government would re-hire controversial former public utility ESKOM CEO’s Brian Molefe and Matshela Koko to end the phenomenon of rolling electricity blackouts that is called ‘load-shedding’ locally. At first glance, their calls for the reinstatement of these scandal-tainted public figures who are close to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to solve the energy crisis that is widely believed to be a major threat to the economy seems curious, strange even. On closer inspection, however, their endorsement of these disgraced individuals might not be as inexplicable as it at first appears.

To begin to make sense of this announcement, consider the political context in which these statements were made. Specifically, consider that South Africa (SA) is due to go the polls on 29 Maythis year when it is widely predicted that the ruling ANC will win less than 50 percent of the vote for the first time since the advent of democracy in 1994. While predictions vary, pundits concur that the centre-left ANC will remain the single biggest political entity and retain at least 40 percent of the vote. Should these predictions be realised, the ANC would have to enter a coalition agreement with another party or parties in order to form a government. Even after the Multi-Party Charter agreement was signed between official opposition the Democratic Alliance and several other smaller parties, there is no shortage of nominally left/centre-left smaller parties in SA besides the EFF that might be able to muster sufficient votes and would be willing to serve as junior partners in an ANC-led government. These range from the newly-founded uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) Party which former SA president Jacob Zuma is the public face of, to sometime ANC coalition partner at municipal level the Patriotic Alliance which harbours hopes of benefitting from predominantly Muslim Cape Malay voters which form a sizeable voting bloc in the province of the Western Cape switching their allegiances from the opposition Democratic Alliance because of its perceived pro-Israeli stance in the Israel-Hamas conflict to the GOOD Party, whose veteran founder and leader, former Pan African Congress stalwart Patricia de Lille, already serves as the Minister of Tourism in the current administration.

Thus, upon surveying the political landscape, the astute EFF observer would be justified in concluding that there are several viable contenders that would be capable of serving as a junior partner(s) in an ANC-led coalition government should the ANC perform as predicted in the upcoming elections and be willing to do so. Under these circumstances, party strategists might rationalise that publicly announcing that their party is not only in favour of a controversial big-ticket item like the expansion of nuclear power output but is also willing to work with the most divisive of pro-nuclear figures who have long espoused the most pro-nuclear of positions would be interpreted by the ruling ANC as a clear signal that the EFF could be counted on to support the government’s nuclear plans, plans which are so contentious they are not only opposed by large segments of academia and civil society but within official circles such as the presidentially-appointed Presidential Climate Commission as well. In turn, ANC bigwigs tasked with identifying potential coalition partners could reasonably assume that, if the EFF supports its nuclear plans, then this party could presumably also be relied upon to support the more ambitious plans which government looks keen to implement in the energy sector. Chief among them being increasing the pace of privatisation in this sector. The net result is that the EFF would put itself at an advantage compared to its smaller rivals in the competition to secure junior party status in a possible coalition government come the end of May.

Whether the EFF’s efforts to beat out its rivals are successful or not, the outcome will still be the same: SA’s nuclear fate will be determined by politicians from a party that represents less than half of the electorate and others from a party (or parties) that is engaged in an act of political opportunism. What a far cry this scenario is from the EFF’s initial pronouncements on the folly of government pursuing nuclear power and its protestations that opportunities for graft and corruption were what was actually driving the government’s push for nuclear power. Incidentally, the EFF’s opposition to nuclear power reached a crescendo when Misters Molefe and Koko were either at the helm of or in the executive management team at public utility ESKOM. This was during the previous Zuma administration, before the court judgment which overturned the 2014 Intergovernmental Agreementsigned between Russia and SA that set the terms for greater cooperation between ESKOM and Russian energy giant Rosatom in a move which supposedly thwarted a nuclear deal with Russia which some experts contend would have bankrupted the country was handed down in 2017.

Granted, this might be mere coincidence. Indeed, the EFF seems to have quietly shifted its position on nuclear power and has steadily become more pro-nuclear since 2017 even though the top brass within the party has largely remained unchanged. Although the timing and content of this announcement could well be a coincidence, the fact that Mr Malema used the recent launch of his party’s election manifesto to wade into South Africa’s current turbulent foreign policy waters by explicitly identifying Russia as a strategic nuclear partner an EFF government would seek to partner with suggests that domestic political manoeuvring and attempts at wooing the ANC, or at least a faction of that reportedly divided organisation that favours closer ties with BRICS allies over ties with the West, lie behind the EFF’s seemingly bizarre decision to embrace divisive figures who were previously closely associated with the ruling ANC and the enthusiasm with which Mr Malema proposed a much bigger increase in nuclear generation capacity than that envisaged in the most updated version of the Integrated Resource Plan that was approved by Cabinet in December last year.

The strong possibility that politicking and electioneering rather than sober assessments of the merits of the case for nuclear power and rigorous internal debate thereon could potentially be driving this political party’s stance on nuclear power exposes once again the foolhardiness of leaving this singularly important national issue to a political party system which is susceptible to being manipulated by slick political operators and subjected to their calculations of what they believe will be in their party’s rather than the country’s best interest. On the other hand, given how divided expert opinion is on the question of nuclear power and the broader economic and socio-political dimensions of this decision, few would be comfortable with leaving this decision to be settled by a narrow administrative or technocratic process, no matter how impartial such a process would supposedly be or unbiased the unelected adjudicators tasked with coming to a decision are. Faced with this dilemma, the need for a political mechanism which bypasses the distortions introduced by the motives of power-hungry political actors embedded in the political party system that simultaneously accounts for the broader socio-political considerations that are often overlooked in a narrow administrative exercise becomes critical.

A tool which meets these criteria is a popular referendum. A referendum represents the ideal way to guarantee that nuclear decisions will not be manipulated by cynical political actors whose main goal is to amass more political power for their parties by out-manoeuvring their political rivals and ensure that public policymaking is guided primarily by the need to address the most pressing social and economic challenges facing the country. At a time when the lustre of democracy is starting to fade in SA and troubling signs of recidivism into old traditions of secrecy and authoritarianism are starting to emerge, what better way is there for the country to affirm its faith in its democratic system and commemorate the 30 years of democracy for which so many South African patriots made the ultimate sacrifice?

Dr Gerard Boyce is an Economist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College) in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.