A referendum is the best way to hear what South Africans think about expanding our nuclear energy capacity, says Gerard Boyce.
In a story that has dominated headlines worldwide over the past few months, Scots were recently asked to decide whether Scotland should become an independent country or remain part of the UK. They chose to retain the status quo in what was ultimately a very close poll.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the outcome thereof, referendums can be sought to settle any major policy decision that has the potential to fundamentally alter the nature of social relations, both domestically and internationally, and which supersedes narrow party interests. Arguably, the pending decision to expand our nuclear energy generating capacity is the sort of decision which ought to be put to a referendum in South Africa.
A number of valid reasons could be put forward in support of the call for a referendum.
Firstly, the stakes involved are such that building these additional reactors will likely affect political, economic and social relations.
The size of the financial outlay required, the unfathomable operational timelines involved, the cataclysmic uses to which nuclear technology can be put, not to mention the regulatory and legislative protections which are necessary for this industry to thrive, ensure that this decision will have far-reaching implications that will affect societal relations for generations to come.
Moreover, as moves by other countries which seek to establish nuclear energy programmes demonstrate, nuclear energy holds the power to change our national self-perception and, by extension, the nature of our relations with the rest of the world. This decision is not merely a question of tallying up financial costs and benefits.
Furthermore, the evidence that policymakers have a mandate from South Africans in this regard is quite weak. Results of the few surveys that have actually canvassed South Africans’ attitudes thereon clearly reveal citizens’ limited knowledge of the threats and advantages presented by nuclear power.
By pushing through this policy in this situation, the government risks being accused of being undemocratic.
In contrast, the recent Scottish referendum shows that referendums are a sure way to increase citizens’ knowledge of the various aspects of the issue under consideration.
Greater levels of knowledge increase the likelihood that votes offer a truer reflection of citizens’ attitudes and are not emotional or knee-jerk reactions to the appeals to job creation and poverty alleviation on which those in favour of expanding our nuclear energy capacity seem to rely. Affording citizens the opportunity to express their opinions on this issue via a referendum is also likely to strengthen democratic culture and civic participation.
These are welcome benefits given the recent shenanigans in Parliament, which appear to show that a certain boorishness is beginning to slip into political discourse. Yet perhaps the most persuasive argument in favour of a national referendum on nuclear power might be that there are precedents in this regard.
For example, countries as diverse as Sweden, Italy and Bulgaria have all held referendums on nuclear power.
Notwithstanding the reasons to support the call for a referendum on nuclear power that have been cited above, this call is just as likely to be opposed. It could be argued that referendums are expensive and that they rarely settle anything.
More generally, detractors might argue that referendums are a form of populism and could undermine the system of representative democracy. Referendums are unnecessary as elected officials are perfectly capable of making this decision.
Given the deafening silence surrounding this topic, however, and the government’s apparent intention to proceed with the expansion of our nuclear energy capacity over and above the concerns that were raised in the National Development Plan, the probability that policymakers and politicians are able to do so seems rather slim.
In deference to them, this could indicate that they are not very familiar with the issue themselves and are thus reluctant to speak out about it. Less flatteringly, their silence could imply that they believe that the outcome of this decision is a foregone conclusion and are afraid of falling out of favour.
Either possibility strongly suggests that treating the decision to build additional nuclear power stations as a routine political or administrative decision might not yield the most socially optimal outcome.
Conversely, putting this decision to a referendum may free politicians and ordinary citizens to exercise their individual judgement and act in accordance with their conscience, something that seems in short supply in an era where party loyalty seems to be valued above all else.
Based on the above, a referendum on nuclear power is both timely and warranted. All that remains to be seen is whether policymakers are prepared take the low road towards greater levels of participatory democracy and forgo taking the high road of technocratic decision-making.
* Gerard Boyce is a post-doctoral fellow in the School of Accounting, Economics and Finance at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. This article also appears on the South African Civil Services Information Services website.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.