[OPINION] The incoherence & chaos of the Zuma administration

Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) had one simple message: we are drowning in debt.

So, it was no surprise then that Gigaba kicked for touch when speaking about the proposed nuclear build being pushed so vociferously by President Zuma. Gigaba said there was no room for nuclear in South Africa’s current Budget and it remained ‘unaffordable’. He went on to say that the nuclear plan would be reviewed once a new Integrated Resource Plan provided further clarity.

It was curious then to hear the new Minister of Energy, David Mahlobo, Zuma’s staunch ally, speaking afterwards and saying that the numbers in the MTBPS were ‘speculation’ and that, in fact, there was finality regarding the nuclear build. What he was saying was that it would proceed.

This week in Parliament Mahlobo said he would be basing our nuclear plans on the new Integrated Resource Plan that he wants completed by the end of this month. The end of this month seems like no time at all to complete such a complex task. It seems as if Mahlobo wants an IRP that supports his nuclear plan. This week Gigaba tried to clarify these contradictions and said that the nuclear deal would be implemented at a ‘scale which was affordable.’ Gigaba stressed that adding to budget pressures would be difficult at this stage given competing priorities like allocations for higher education.

So, who to believe - Gigaba or Mahlobo? This contradiction indicates clearly the incoherence and chaos the Zuma administration thrives on. Zuma, after all, operates in the shadows and sowing the seeds of doubt regarding the nuclear deal with Russia pits his ministers against each other. Presuming, of course, that Gigaba is being forthright. We have to take him at his word.

It is abundantly obvious from the recent logic-defying Cabinet reshuffle that Zuma will seek to rely on his ally, the inept Mahlobo to push through the nuclear deal. There are a few challenges, however. Firstly, Gigaba has to find the money somewhere and secondly, there is the judgment of the Western Cape High Court and a watchful civil society.

In April this year, Judge Lee Bozalek, with Judge Elizabeth Baartman concurring, set aside two determinations by former Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson that are to lay the basis for future nuclear procurement. The application, brought by civil society groups, doggedly pursuing the matter, meant that the so-called ‘nuclear deal’ went back to the drawing board.

The court found that the South African-Russian nuclear co-operation deal was ‘unconstitutional and unlawful’ given that there was no public participation in the process. The reality is that the deal has been shrouded in secrecy. The nature of the international agreements also meant they had to be tabled in Parliament in terms of section 231 (2) of the Constitution, the court held. This required the approval of both houses of Parliament.

However, the minister curiously tabled the international co-operation agreements between the US, Russia and South Korea in terms of s231 (3), which does not require parliamentary endorsement. That section states that agreements of a ‘technical, administrative or executive nature’ need not have the approval of both houses of Parliament and only need to be tabled ‘within a reasonable time’. That, the court, held was irrational. It says much about Parliament’s neglect of its oversight role that the minister was allowed to flout process in such a manner when clearly the agreements fell outside of s231 (3). Why was Parliament silent on this failure of procedure? Some answers ought to be forthcoming surely?

The court ruling then thwarted Zuma’s nuclear plans.

For a number of years there have been serious reservations regarding the nuclear deal. In addition to exorbitant costs and the secret nature of the process, there are safety and environmental issues to be considered. The National Development Plan encourages a host of alternatives to nuclear. It seems, of course, that the president, in particular, is hell-bent on the nuclear option to provide South Africa with 9,600MW of nuclear power.

The draft 2016 IRP ought to be the primary policy guide and describes a future energy mix that includes, but is not limited to, nuclear energy. But, aside from the IRP, the National Development Plan has a clear commitment to an ‘energy mix’ which would include renewable energy sources. Government seems for some reason to be relying on the 2010 IRP that suggests 9,600MW nuclear power is needed.

Its dogged pursuit of nuclear above everything else is confusing in many ways. Joemat-Pettersson was on record as saying that the deal would create thousands of jobs and also ‘place a considerable order to local industrial enterprises worth at least $10 billion’. That really did sound like arms deal déjà vu and the so-called National and Defence Industrial Participation Plans. The nuclear deal will, in fact, dwarf the arms deal of 1999 in both size as well as its potential for corruption.

In 1999 then Treasury official Roland White warned that South Africa’s commitment to the arms deal would depend on its ‘appetite for risk’. The failure of the arms deal and the associated corruption has caused an inestimable amount of damage to our democracy and its institutions. It’s worth learning the lessons from the past.

In addition, Section 217 of the Constitution is quite clear regarding procurement processes when it says they should be, ‘in accordance with a system which is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective…’ Parliament also has a constitutional duty to ensure that it exercises oversight over the executive and now has a fresh opportunity to redeem itself after its failure to deal with the breach of procedure by the minister in tabling the international agreements mentioned above.

The bold Western Cape High Court ruling showed that this nuclear deal is all of our business and there can be no place for secrecy when the state is about to commit us all to billions of rands in expenditure and bind future generations. Mahlobo, the former Minister of State Security, is a securocrat with little appetite for transparency. He is likely to be Zuma’s chief enforcer as regards this deal. Time is running out before the unpredictable ANC conference in December. Zuma will want to stitch the deal by then perhaps. That will be an uphill battle, but it will require vigilance from civil society and the media to ensure that nothing slips under the radar.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february