President Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE content of the nuclear power cooperation framework agreement between SA and the Russian Federation remains unknown. The document could nevertheless come back to haunt African National Congress (ANC) leader Jacob Zuma.

First, Zuma’s approach is a kick in the teeth for proponents of the National Development Plan, which he has hitherto personally championed. The government’s updated Integrated Resource Plan, which takes account of changes in predicted generation costs, falls in renewable energy prices, and changes in the economy’s energy intensity, has still not been presented to the Cabinet. The new initiative therefore flies in the face of reason. It is also alarming to see Zuma’s energy minister apparently bypassing the equitable, competitive and transparent public procurement process that the law demands.

Second, Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom has repeatedly pre-empted South African government decisions. Rosatom is run by appointees who serve at the personal pleasure of President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has therefore given the impression that it views Zuma as a feeble leader who can be bounced into conceding to Russian demands.

The ANC’s party-to-party agreement with United Russia last year was nothing unusual — it has recently signed similar agreements with the Chinese Communist Party, among others. But Zuma’s unsupervised interactions with his Russian counterpart have been widely interpreted as suspicious. Speculation about improper inducements from the Russians — whether or not it holds water — shows that Zuma’s reservoir of personal political credibility has all but dried up after Nkandla.

Third, vendor financing models, in which construction costs are covered by the selling party, have not persuaded citizens there is such a thing as a free lunch. Championing such models is widely viewed as an insult to the intelligence of party members. Future rises in electricity tariffs to cover the nuclear build are not just a menace in distant years ahead. Projections of rapid electricity price rises will discourage investment today and undermine confidence in the country’s future creditworthiness. Finally, resources always feed into ANC factionalism. Huge and opaque transactions such as this one invariably spill over into factional war chests and patronage networks.

Proposals to build nuclear reactors first surfaced in 2006 under then-minerals and energy minister Buyelwa Sonjica and then-public enterprises minister Alec "Offsets" Erwin. The Eskom tender for the first power station, with French partner Areva, was terminated by the Cabinet in the same week that Thabo Mbeki was pushed out of the state presidency.

When nuclear proposals resurfaced under Zuma’s first energy minister, Dipuo Peters, there were new preferred vendors, the Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation, and new political partners in the Communist Party of China. Sinophile deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe took charge of the nuclear procurement committee while ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe cosied up to the party leadership. After Mangaung, however, Zuma pronounced himself Cabinet nuclear tsar. His officials have recently gone out of their way to exclude a Chinese bid on the grounds that China’s companies have not successfully built power stations outside China.

Any Rosatom fix will therefore generate two forms of conflict. There will be fights between pro-nuclear comrades and anti-nuclear antagonists. If undue haste and a refusal to consider evidence continue to be the defining features of Zuma’s nuclear programme, he will face a significant set of opponents from the ANC’s residual rational centre, the trade unions, and the South African Communist Party.

But fissures will also widen between different cabals of pro-nuclear entrepreneurs who hope to benefit from the patronage of competing vendors. A pre-emptive favouring of Rosatom will set Zuma up, in particular, against a grouping that wants to harness nuclear co-operation to build a long-term strategic partnership with China. Zuma may end up with a fight on more fronts than he has anticipated.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.