Cape Town - South Africans who are worried about the controversial and expensive nuclear deal being shoved down their throats have received support from an unexpected quarter.
Fikile Majola, ANC MP and chairperson of Parliament’s portfolio committee on energy, has turned out to be a champion for transparency in the nuclear deal.
In a frank interview with City Press, Majola said it would be foolhardy of Parliament to rubber-stamp government’s controversial nuclear deal if it turns out to be unaffordable or to South Africa’s detriment.
“I think we have entered a new phase of the nuclear procurement process. It is now irreversible that we are going to have to conduct it in a very transparent manner, and we are going to have to allow robust public engagement,” said Majola from his bare offices just off the National Assembly chamber.
“As I have said in the committee, we do recognise that we may have to treat some information confidentially, depending on the stage at which the negotiations are, but we are not going to treat this as a clandestine operation – especially given our history with previous large procurements.”
It was not entirely surprising that Majola had the ANC’s national general council policy document opened to the page that dealt with nuclear energy in preparation for the interview, almost as if to shield himself with it.
“The ANC says the government must commit to a full, transparent and thorough cost-benefit analysis of nuclear as part of the procurement process,” he read.
But Majola was insisting on transparency and public hearings before this document came out, at a time when Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson and senior officials in the department appeared set against further public hearings.
“I’m not scared to be on my own from time to time on something that is correct ... I would expect the ANC to have adopted this position as a progressive liberation movement.”
Majola was a little surprised to learn he was to be appointed chairperson of the energy committee, having spent two and a half decades working for the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, a public sector union.
Perhaps it was fated though, he joked.
“I was born next to a small power station in the Free State called Kragbron, not very far from Sasolburg, so I’ve always had a relationship with power stations.”
Majola is not, however, set against nuclear. He just thinks we have to “open it up if it is to succeed”.
He said he listened to detractors and proponents of nuclear technology from Germany to China, and thought proponents might well have the upper hand. “Having listened to everybody, I’m quite convinced nuclear energy is going to have to be an important part of South Africa’s energy mix.”
But Majola’s public hearings, which Joemat-Pettersson now appears to have bought into, will mean there will be an opportunity for everyone’s position to be thoroughly scrutinised, including the government’s and Treasury’s.
So will Majola be willing to apply the brakes if he doesn’t like the plan?
He said he wouldn’t put it that way, but pointed out that an agreement that bound South Africa financially would have to be ratified by Parliament.
“At that point, we will have to apply our minds and decide whether this is in the interest of the country or not, or whether we can afford it, like with any other agreements. So we will not proceed to ratify it if it is not.
“I am certain that if the legislature is going to proceed in such a way that it becomes just a rubber stamp, then it will not be in the interests of the spirit of the Constitution, which is meant to ensure there can be balance in the exercise of power.
“If the legislature can’t say no, then there is no point in having a legislature as a counterbalance.”
But many observers have already noted that Majola’s call for transparency could be at odds with an executive that seems dead set on a nuclear deal.
This is exacerbated by the fact that there are ANC MPs on Majola’s committee who are vociferous supporters of the nuclear deal and regularly rubbish opposition.
But Majola says he will never do his job “worried about my back”.
“I’m not here because I’m into some adventure. I spent a long time in this movement and I’m old enough now to understand what is acceptable and what not,” he says.
“I don’t think the ANC operates that way.”