Brexit: Implications for the rollout of South Africa’s nuclear programme

2016-07-01 08:12

Second thoughts about the wisdom of leaving the European Union (EU) and mounting calls for a Brexit referendum redux, along with rumblings that the Scots may call a second referendum on independence from the United Kingdom (UK) in as many years, are likely to be cited as further evidence in support of one of the more common arguments against the use of popular referendums to settle contentious and complex socio-political debates: they rarely seem to settle anything. Indeed, given the narrowness of the margin by which British voters chose to leave the EU, and how divided the UK seems to be at present, it appears as though the recent referendum only served to worsen rather than mend existing social divisions in that country.

Closer reading of the voluminous commentary and analysis that has been written in the wake of last week’s result highlights two key factors which may be responsible for this state of affairs and upon which the success of any referendum depends. The first of these is that the electorate needs to be well-informed and made fully aware of all aspects of the issue that is subject to the referendum and the stakes involved. Secondly, voters have got to turn up to vote in their numbers in order to ensure that the ballot is a true reflection of their will. Granted, this last point might seem rather trite, and fairly self-evident. However, in an age where participation does not seem to extend beyond the re-tweeting of a trending #hashtag slogan or the signing of an online petition, voters need to realise that it is the most fundamental form of democratic participation that counts in the final analysis. Dwelling on this latter point is especially warranted in the current situation given the quarters from which calls for a second referendum appear to be emanating and that the option which pundits touted as being in the best interests of the UK, and which was widely predicted, even expected, to win (the ‘remain’ option), was rejected by the majority of those who cast their vote. This unanticipated result clearly illustrates another truism: that the outcome of any election cannot be taken for granted. As such, the ordinary voter cannot rely on the expectation that others will make the most obvious or common-sense choice to downplay the importance or necessity of their individual vote.

Though discussed in the context of the outcome of the Brexit referendum, a well-informed and active citizenry which consciously exercises their right to vote is not only crucial for the success of referendums but also for the functioning of democratic processes and the fostering of a democratic culture in general. It might, therefore, be unfair to single these factors out as being somehow peculiar to referendums in particular. Arguably, the critical role they play in determining electoral outcomes not only extends to situations where political decisions have long-term and frequently irreversible effects associated therewith but magnifies these effects.

Based upon this premise, it is contended that, given South Africans’ notoriously low levels of basic knowledge of nuclear power, the relative lack of information on the estimated costs and benefits of the planned nuclear reactor building programme which has been forthcoming from government and the limited opportunities that citizens have been afforded to engage policymakers on their decision-making processes in this regard, it would be prudent for the government to hold off on making binding commitments when it comes to the expansion of our nuclear power generation capacity until these factors are adequately addressed. Failure to do so may well leave South Africans nursing the intense feelings of regret which many Brits are now reportedly experiencing as they cope with the fallout of their decision to leave the EU and begin the difficult task of unifying their divided nation.


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2010-11-21 18:15

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