Why SA needs a referendum on nuclear power

2015-04-29 04:31

The celebration of Freedom Day provides a fitting backdrop against which to reflect upon the state of our democracy and the progress we have made towards realising the vision of an inclusive society which sustained all true patriots during the darkest days of apartheid and for which so many sacrificed. A cursory glance at the stories making headlines today suggests that much still needs to be done and that our hard-won freedoms are a lot more tenuous than we would like to believe. To cite but one example, media exposés of government’s conduct in negotiations for the purchase of a fleet of nuclear reactors that the government plans on commissioning in the near future hint at the persistence of traditions of state secrecy and lack of accountability and highlight the difficulty of the task of establishing a culture of state transparency and openness.

This particular story is especially significant since these revelations have the potential to increase citizens’ scepticism that decision-makers can be trusted to make socially optimal decisions in this regard. Increasing levels of public scepticism in turn puts policymakers in the awkward position of having to continually convince a weary public of their commitment to making socially optimal decisions in general and their capacity to do so. In other words, it calls into question the unspoken compact between the electorate and its leaders in a democracy; that leaders will strive to act in their best interest. Dispelling these doubts and restoring citizens’ belief in our democratic system is a task to which all who care about democracy ought to be prepared to contribute. By way of own contribution, in this article one argues that a referendum on nuclear power might offer a means of addressing these concerns and briefly sets forth an argument in support of this view. In addition, one rebuts some of the main counter-arguments that will likely be raised.

Firstly, consider that nuclear power bestows prestige and grants a nation a certain status in the techno-centric purview in which concepts like development and progress are measured. It follows then that, by its nature, the decision to acquire nuclear technology reflects a certain vision of the way we see ourselves or to which we aspire. These perceptions in turn influence where we place ourselves in the community of nations and thereby affect our relations with other countries. Likewise, consider the extensive legal framework necessary to ensure the protection of this industry. This effectively grants the nuclear industry the power to affect inter-group relations, including but not limited to the relationship between the state and its citizens.

Given the myriad ways in which this industry affects how we see ourselves and how we interact with each other, not to mention the sheer scale of this project, it is plausible to presume that this transaction would fundamentally alter the character of society and influence our perceptions of our national self-identity. Seen from this perspective, it is clear that this is no routine administrative decision that can be left to bureaucrats. Rather, it is a statement about the extent to which society subscribes to a particular vision. This is best verified through participatory public processes. The surest of the processes available to test whether citizens buy into a particular vision of society is via direct public input in the form of a referendum.

But it is superfluous some might protest, citing muted public protests as support of government’s decision. Whilst it might seem reasonable to assume that the relative silence thereon signifies popular support for this decision, ample evidence suggests that this silence may not signify support but ignorance. Pursuing a project under such circumstances opens the state to the accusation that it forced this project onto an unwitting public. In contrast, putting this decision to a referendum would protect policymakers against this charge in future by offering them the greatest assurance that the members of the public have critically engaged with this issue.

Alternatively, detractors will oppose a referendum on the grounds that it smacks of populism and would be a dangerous precursor to mob rule. Where debate is silenced by appealing to the obscure notion of the ‘national interest’ and popular opinion is being swayed by the emotive and as yet untested promise that it will stimulate job creation, as is currently the case, one avers that it is facetious to make this argument. Under these circumstances, affording citizens time for critical assessment of the pros and cons associated with this programme as in a referendum would reverse these trends and be the very antithesis of populism.

It will undermine the ability of elected officials to do their work and by extension, the system of representative democracy. By way of response, indications are that the process currently underway sidelines most senior officials within relevant departments and that decisions are being made by a clique of insiders who are close to the president. For a reminder of how allowing government policy to be driven by personal preference undermines governance, readers have merely to recall our government’s initial ham-fisted response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

It will delay the building of the nuclear programme and exacerbate the ‘challenges’ facing South Africa’s electricity sector. Yes, it will delay the nuclear build programme and will be expensive to boot. In the current environment of strained public finances and ever-decreasing sovereign credit ratings, however, delaying a controversial project which imposes a considerable burden on taxpayers for the foreseeable future might not be an altogether poor outcome. Crucially, a referendum may even allay financial market concerns by signalling that South African policymakers will not rush headlong into a deal without assessing all the potential dangers thereof. When the financial stakes are so high and the success of this project so heavily dependent on financial chicanery, can South Africa afford to forgo this benefit by not holding a referendum?

It is unnecessary as there already are processes in place to obtain input from communities that will be affected by the nuclear build programme and in which nuclear facilities are to be located. Whilst these efforts are applauded, a nuclear programme has effects that extend far beyond the boundaries of these communities. Although members of these communities will be most affected, they will not be the only ones affected given the raft of laws required to protect this industry and the scale of the destruction in the case of an accident. It is thus disingenuous to claim that the consultations mandated by these processes constitute a comprehensive public consultation process. Since all South Africans will be affected, the only legitimate consultation processes would be those that took all our views into account.

The issues are too technical and the concepts too complex for ordinary citizens to understand. Consequently, the results of any referendum would be meaningless. Disregarding the paternalism inherent in this sentiment, the issue in question is actually quite simple: do you agree with a particular method of boiling water that can be used to produce steam which will rise to spin a turbine that generates electricity? Presented this way, there are few who would deny citizens the opportunity to become masters of their own destinies via a referendum, provided sufficient time is allowed to run suitable information and public awareness campaigns that is.

Yet perhaps the greatest impediment to holding a referendum is the creeping cynicism that has seeped into our political life. According to this view, it is futile to call for a referendum as there are too many vested political interests in this project. Affording citizens the opportunity to freely express their individual judgment on this singularly important issue independently of their political affiliations or racial sensibilities, unlike as in a general election, is the ideal way to counter this palpable sense of disillusionment and reinvigorate our body politic with the hope with which the birth of the New South Africa was greeted 21 years ago. What greater dividend can the debate about nuclear energy yield in a vastly unequal society where ordinary citizens are increasingly beginning to feel that their voices are not being heard by members of a ruling class who seem preoccupied with accumulating wealth for themselves and their extended families rather than meeting their basic needs?

If for no other reason, I support the call for a referendum on nuclear power in South Africa; will you?

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