How the nuclear debate could herald a new era in South African politics

2016-10-25 22:30

At a time when South Africans are bearing witness to the apparent implosion of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its descent into factionalism and bitter in-fighting, it is very easy for conjecture and speculation to be taken as fact and tempting to slip into the habit (often unwittingly so) of identifying sides and associating broad views with members of various factions. As in every soap opera, characters in this drama are quickly typecast into the roles of heroes and villains. As a consequence of associating particular views with particular groups or individuals, it becomes fairly easy for spectators to this drama to downplay or even ignore the systemic forces which could underlie events and to attempt rather to explain and understand current political events in terms of the motives of the antagonists involved. Perhaps this reductive exercise reflects a natural tendency of people to simplify difficult issues in their attempts to make sense of them.

The view that political acts and events can be solely explained in terms of the motivations of a few of the key individual actors’ involved, however, does not seem to accord with how developments have unfolded in South African politics recently. This seems to be especially the case when it comes to debate about the government’s proposed nuclear plans as a brief recap of certain pertinent facts will attest. Firstly, for all the topicality of the notion of ‘state capture’ and the insinuation that members of certain factions of the ruling party are pushing nuclear power so that their associates can secure lucrative public contracts, it is worth bearing in mind that an ANC led cabinet whose members solemnly swore to act in the best interests of all citizens approved the nuclear deal last December. When acting as members of Cabinet, they did not represent a faction or a part of the ANC. By virtue thereof, all Cabinet members are collectively responsible for the decision that was made and those that are currently being mulled over. This includes individual ministers who now seem to enjoy high levels of public support based upon perceptions created by revelations divulged in subsequent media reports. On that note, recall too that former Finance Minister Manuel, a public figure who seems to have embraced a role as critic of the ANC at large, himself approved vastly more sums of money to be spent on the failed Pebble Bed Modular Reactor programme during his tenure than has been spent on the preparatory work for the current nuclear programme. Note too that government’s current nuclear plans were hatched before President Zuma’s administration took charge. Thus, although rumoured that he believes the expansion of nuclear generation capacity to be part of his legacy, it might be misleading to equate the government’s nuclear plans with the personage of President Zuma.

Secondly, the opposition Democratic Alliance, which has become very vocal in its opposition to the government’s nuclear plans of late, does not appear to be against nuclear power in principle. Rather, its opposition to the government’s nuclear plans seems to stem from its suspicions regarding opportunities for patronage and corruption which the nuclear deal may present. In other words, its stance is an extension of its politics and not strictly a matter of principle. Granted, there are few political formations that have come out and expressed opposition to nuclear power in principle. Those that have, such as the newly-formed Economic Freedom Fighters or the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa led United Front, tend to come from what political commentators would typically describe as the left of the political spectrum. Curiously, their firm opposition to the government’s nuclear plans is strongly shared by big business, a constituency whose members are typically more conservative, in terms of political attitudes, and could be said to favour the economic status quo. Speculatively, their shared opposition, albeit for different reasons, could present a unique opportunity to build bridges across our divided society and could serve to facilitate rapprochement between groupings on rival ends of the political spectrum. This possibility is likely to hold out much promise in as deeply divided a society as South Africa, where opportunities to engage in meaningful interaction with groups whose members are usually treated as implacable rivals rather than potential partners in the national development project are few and far between.

These are but some features of South Africa’s political landscape that do not accord with the neat way in which the nuclear debate seems to be being portrayed, in popular circles at least. Arguably, this complexity makes it incumbent upon us all to resist the temptation to reduce the nuclear debate to one dominated by personalities and to take active steps to avoid framing it in terms of the partisan and identity politics that have long hindered meaningful social and political dialogue in South Africa. In so doing, the national conversation that South Africa needs to have on nuclear power could lay the groundwork for an issue-driven form of politics in future, one that is driven by principle rather than personalities and is closer in spirit to the democratic values to which we all aspire and which inform our Constitution.

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