Jacob Zuma. Picture: REUTERS
Jacob Zuma. Picture: REUTERS

Jacob Zuma is insulting the country’s intelligence.

The former president, in an interview with Business Day last week, said if the proposed nuclear deal with Russia had gone ahead it would have prevented SA’s current energy crisis. How that is supposed to work is unclear.

 If there is one thing to take from the debacle of the construction of the Kusile and Medupi power stations, is that it is unlikely any project agreed to in 2014-15 would have been producing electricity today. 

And then there’s the cost. Once again, the two coal-powered stations that were supposed to prevent the current blackouts are instructive, with overruns that have left Eskom with about R420bn in debt that it can’t service.

Even if there was a miracle and the costs didn’t escalate, the R1-trillion estimated price tag of the nuclear plant, equivalent to about 60% of the government expenditure in the 2018/2019 fiscal year, would have crippled the economy. Experts had also warned that it was neither necessary nor affordable.

Whatever Zuma and his supporters say, what is clear is that SA, which is already standing on the verge of a credit downgrade, doesn’t have the money to throw at nuclear.

Zuma however seems to think he knows more than the experts, claiming we would have somehow made trillions from his project.

Former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in 2018 told the state capture inquiry that he believed he was fired in 2015 for refusing to endorse the nuclear deal with Russia.

Nene also told deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo that he came under pressure to approve the deal while on a trip to Russia in 2014, and that he refused because there was no information on the financial implications, funding model and risk mitigation strategies.

That’s not a shock because the former president isn’t known for his attention to detail or following proper procedure.

The government in 2015 said the programme would cost about $100bn, which, on the exchange rate at the time, would have been R1.45-trillion.

One would think that this would have been enough proof that there was no way SA could afford nuclear. But for the former president money was  not an issue. 

He also seems to have a naive view that Russia would not have taken harsh action against SA if it defaulted on payments for the funding of the nuclear programme.

If it weren’t for the judiciary, Zuma would have got his way.

In 2017 the high court ruled that the intergovernmental agreements that would have allowed the programme to go ahead were unlawful, following a challenge by environmental activists.

If SA had gone ahead and pushed on with the nuclear deal, as Zuma wanted, and it further crippled our economy, the former president probably would have done what he does best — feign ignorance and ask “what have I done wrong”.

This is the exact line he is using as he tries to fight off graft charges in the High Court in Pietermaritzburg.

Even though Zuma is no longer leader of the country or the ANC, he still has some power over a certain faction in the party, and some in the government are still pushing the notion that SA needs nuclear energy.

Energy minister Jeff Radebe on Friday said as much.

He said: “We have to consider nuclear, and despite its high capital costs, we have not lost sight of the fact that this is a clean energy source that can contribute optimally for electricity generation.”

While independent power producers are knocking at the door offering SA sources of renewable energy, they are facing a political pushback.

SA’s power crisis is expected to last for years as Eskom battles a financial and operational crisis, and therefore these debates will  likely be with us for some time to come.

Whatever Zuma and his supporters say, what is clear is that SA, which is already standing on the verge of a credit downgrade, doesn’t have the money to throw at nuclear.

As a country, we need to stand up to those who would bully us into a nuclear option that will further cripple SA.