Zuma distorting the nuke issue as he bows to power

JACOB ZUMA
JACOB ZUMA

It is interesting that President Jacob Zuma used what was billed as an "Oliver Tambo Memorial Lecture" to drum up support for his nuclear energy ambitions.

His quest for this vanity project seems to be getting more desperate as his term draws to a close.

Zuma made it clear almost two years ago that his government was exploring the procurement of 9600MW of nuclear energy. It is curious, though, that government is silent on cheaper energy options.

What was interesting about Zuma's "lecture" is how he twisted the ANC's historical position on nuclear to make it look like there's something radical about sourcing this technology from the Russians.

He said the Eastern bloc supported the ANC unconditionally when the West was reluctant to show solidarity with SA's oppressed.

"When we started negotiating, Western countries said 'you have nuclear and nuclear weapons, dismantle them because it's not proper for these communists to have this technology when they are in charge of the country'. Do you see where the nuclear issue comes from?" he told his audience.

The speech conflated peaceful nuclear technology, which we already use in the form of nuclear medicine and power generation, with the politics of the Cold War.

The history of how the ANC under Tambo actively campaigned against apartheid SA acquiring nukes is well-recorded, and was missing from the lecture.

The ANC that Tambo led was party to the Organisation of African Unity's resolutions calling for a nuke-free Africa and condemning SA's nuke programmes. Nelson Mandela even told the OAU in Tunisia in 1994 his government would not develop nuclear other than for peaceful purposes.

The first major diplomatic disagreement Mandela had with the US as president concerned the renewal of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the primary instrument to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, when it came up for review. Bill Clinton wanted Mandela to support the indefinite renewal of the treaty as it was, but SA's allies in both the OAU and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) favoured forcing the official nuclear powers to commit to disarmament. SA got the credit when the treaty's 175 signatories renewed it in 1995.

So there is nothing in the history of the ANC to suggest that it ever harboured aspirations of making SA the continent's nuclear power.

But in Zuma's iteration of history, those who disagree with his nuclear energy plans are embedded with the "countries that don't love us" in the "balance of forces". In that world of make-believe, the pro-capitalist Vladimir Putin is recast as a modern-day communist - and by agreeing to a Russian nuclear debt, we are somehow supporting an "anti-imperialist" force.

But how radical and anti-West has Zuma been in practice? His government's push for reforms in how UN Security Council (UNSC) is configured has been low key.

When we briefly had a seat at the UNSC a few years ago, we voted in favour of invading Libya. Today, the north African country is in ruins.

We don't seem to have an agenda of our own at the UNSC, and take our cue from Russia and China.

Zuma seems to be happy to participate in forums dominated by the powerful, such as the G8.

For the first time, SA missed a meeting of the NAM in Venezuela in 2016. So much for our solidarity with countries that are trying to craft a different global agenda.

SA took flak from the West for its political positions under the presidencies of Mandela and Thabo Mbeki - clearly an indication that we mattered in world affairs. These days, we just go with the flow.

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