The connection between student protests and the delay in the nuclear procurement process

2016-10-02 08:39

Last week, the government announced that it was postponing issuing a request for proposals under its nuclear build programme which it was supposed to have done by the end of September 2016. Media speculation abounds as to the reasons why the government did so. Some of the more popular explanations doing the rounds are that cabinet is divided on the procedural aspects surrounding the issuing of the request for proposals or that there exists disagreement about the role that electricity utility Eskom will play in the procurement process.

At the outset, given the effort that has been put into talking up Eskom CEO Mr Molefe’s achievements of late on the one hand and residual public antipathy towards Eskom on the other, one is unconvinced that this delay was caused by differences over a greater role for Eskom in the procurement and structuring of the deal for all the Eskom executives who have come out swinging in favour of the nuclear deal over the past few weeks. It would seem more likely if responsibility for the structuring of the nuclear deal and oversight of the procurement process was vested in the Departments of Energy or Treasury and Mr Molefe (a respected and competent bureaucrat who is untarnished by accusations of state capture) was primed for a senior position in either of these departments. This would bypass the scandal-plagued utility Eskom altogether. Speculatively, a high-profile post in either one of these departments; a specially-created supra-departmental desk for nuclear affairs, a position as Director General, or even a ministerial position; is not beyond the realm of possibility. Likewise, note that Cabinet approved the nuclear deal late last year over and above the same concerns about the procedural aspects of the nuclear deal that opponents of the government’s nuclear plans have raised over the past few years. It is somewhat difficult to believe that some members of a cabinet that is constituted of by and large the same people that it did nine months ago have now suddenly had major second thoughts about the procedural aspects of this deal and have sought to delay it.

A more plausible explanation for the delay in the issuing of the request for proposals is the political context in which South Africa finds itself today. Specifically, the current round of student protests and shutdown of university campuses across the country may have led ruling party strategists to deduce that going ahead with this controversial programme under the current circumstances may serve to inflame pre-existing tensions. Under these circumstances, leaders might worry that an already restive and militant student population might not countenance their entering into a long-term financial commitment for which future generations of South Africans will have to foot the bulk of the bill. In addition to jeopardising their nuclear plans, they could perhaps also fear that organised opposition thereto would resurrect the long-forgotten earlier election campaign promise of ‘Free Basic Electricity’. As the current round of student protests attests, long-forgotten and unfulfilled election promises (in this case, the promise of ‘Free Education’) still strike a chord with an electorate that has grown frustrated with the pace, quality and level of government service delivery. These anxieties may have led politicians to counsel a more prudent approach for now. In terms of this approach, government would wait for student anger to boil over and for the current bout of protests to subside before pushing the nuclear agenda once more. Besides, as the more cynical among the readership are apt to wryly observe, there is little hurry to go through the charade of calling for proposals when the company that is to be awarded the tender is rumoured to have already been decided upon.

Putting the government’s nuclear plans to a popular referendum in which all views were campaigned for openly would obviate the need for politicking on the part of the state and for shrewd political calculation on such mundane matters as the most opportune time to make this or that announcement or fulfill this or that administrative requirement. Whilst certainly not equivalent to the award of a blank cheque, the popular mandate for a particular course of action which the outcome of a referendum would provide would grant the state considerable leeway when it came to decision-making in this area. This would free leaders and policymakers to concentrate on more important matters such as negotiating the best deals in this regard. Better use of their time and government resources would benefit all South Africans; opponents and supporters of nuclear power, young and old, students and non-students alike. In consideration thereof, one endorses the call for a referendum on nuclear power and urges all readers who would like to see the government maximise the use of its resources to join up at www.facebook.com/CRNPSA.

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