WITH the countdown to the African National Congress (ANC) elective conference having started, civil society is on high alert that President Jacob Zuma – and his supportive Energy Minister, David Mahlobo – will sign a deal with the Russians to build a fleet of nuclear power stations. Fin24’s Matthew le Cordeur explains…
THE level of anxiety regarding a possible nuclear deal being struck before the year is up has been evident with the media analysis on Mahlobo’s every utterance, civil societies’ concern regarding an energy indaba next week and Wednesday’s urgent court interdict against a nuclear deal rushing ahead.
The unproven and denied allegation that Zuma has been bribed with billions of dollars by the Russians as part of a “secret nuclear deal” has driven the debate against nuclear energy in recent years. Zuma himself said South Africa is committed to procuring nuclear energy at a “pace and scale South Africa can afford”.
However, if the allegations are true, the ANC elective conference from December 16 to 20 is a major deadline for the “secret deal” to go through. If Cyril Ramaphosa succeeds Zuma as ANC president, the nuclear plans will likely be scrapped because it is seen as fiscal suicide by Ramaphosa’s faction.
If the allegations are true and if Zuma feels threatened by Ramaphosa’s chances of a victory, it would make sense to sign a nuclear procurement deal with Rosatom before then.
The official nuclear procurement programme run by Eskom this year would have likely been signed by now. However, a court ruling in April changed that and the Department of Energy under newly-appointed Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi said government would start from scratch.
In October, Kubayi was shifted to Communications and Mahlobo was moved from Intelligence to become Energy Minister in Zuma’s second reshuffle in 2017. This raised the alarm immediately, as Mahlobo was seen as one of Zuma’s most loyal cadres and reportedly had good relations with Russia.
Then came the urgent court action by Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (Safcei) on Wednesday. Here, Mahlobo said in court papers that he would follow the court ruling in April regarding the nuclear procurement process.
If followed, this would require an independent public participation process held by energy regulator Nersa, which would be separate from the energy policy public participation process that is being run by Mahlobo’s department.
If that Nersa process found that nuclear was not required, Mahlobo would legally be unable to pursue a nuclear deal, according to lawyers who lodged the interdict. If he violates this undertaking, Safcei and Earthlife Africa will be waiting in court to block the move.
Responding to media reports following Wednesday's court proceedings, the Department of Energy criticised the narrative being punted that it "intended to proceed with the nuclear expansion programme unlawfully".
"The media statements, which seems to suggest that the department would have proceeded with the nuclear expansion programme in an unlawful manner, are malicious and aimed at impugning the integrity of government," the department said in a statement.
"They are aimed at creating panic, misinformation, and misrepresentation of facts and are intended to derail government from reinvigorating the economy."
However, there is still concern that Mahlobo intends pushing through the energy policy document following what some believe may be a sham public participation process next week. If the new energy policy states that large amounts of nuclear energy is required, the government may see this as enough to start the process.
That is why over 20 civil society organisations wrote to Mahlobo on Tuesday asking him to clarify the purpose of the department’s Energy Indaba being held next week on Thursday and Friday in Midrand.
Action group OUTA also wrote to Mahlobo on Wednesday asking for clarity, saying that “the event programme has not yet been circulated and clarity is required on the accessibility of this indaba to the public [both interested and affected parties]."
“According to the ministry, it would appear the planned Energy Indaba constitutes a formal public engagement process on energy matters in general, including on the nuclear energy matter.
“We believe the planned Energy Indaba in the format currently being pursued falls well short of the requirements in law and reason for meaningful engagement on decisions relating to energy mix and procurement,” OUTA told the minister.
The civil society groups that wrote to Mahlobo on Tuesday include WWF, Earthlife Africa, Safcei, Greenpeace Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights.
“We reiterate that accepting the invitation of the Minister of Energy and willingness to engage on issues that need to be addressed through energy planning, in the first week of December 2017, should not be regarded as an admission of having been meaningfully consulted on any procurement processes, electricity system plans, or energy development propositions not currently in the public domain,” the civil society groups wrote.
“The public importance and the far-reaching implications of the IEP (Integrated Energy Plan) and IRP (Integrated Resources Plan) update in determining a sustainable energy future for South Africa cannot be overstated.
“Scheduling an ‘energy indaba’ on such short notice, and with no indication of the status or intent of this gathering, cannot serve as meaningful consultation of stakeholders on major investment decisions, or indeed any national plans or proposals that may be tabled at or in the remaining days before this event.
“It is also unclear how the enormous number of interested and affected people would be in a position to travel to and participate meaningfully in this event,” they wrote.
With the alarm sounded, all eyes will remain on Zuma and Mahlobo regarding nuclear in the coming weeks.
Secret deal or not, the opposition groups to nuclear energy are on full alert and will turn to the courts to fight the process to the last drop.
* Matthew le Cordeur is deputy editor of Fin24.
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