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The South African

The prospect of South Africa joining the UN Security Council as a permanent member could explain President Zuma’s reported enthusiasm for the nuclear project. Being remembered as the president who gave Africa a greater voice on the global stage and secured South Africa’s role as the continent’s megaphone is probably too tantalizing for Zuma and his administration to forego.

In early September 2016, the South African government announced that it intends to issue a request for proposals under its ambitious and controversial multi-billion dollar nuclear reactor building programme (Ensor and Paton, 2016). With very little apparent popular support for this programme and persistent concerns expressed about its cost and affordability, many commentators have questioned the government’s motives for expanding its nuclear power generation capacity. Inevitably perhaps; given apartheid South Africa’s clandestine nuclear weapons development programme, the more muscular posture which its current batch of leaders seem to have adopted in African affairs of late, not to mention growing calls to increase military spending in order to make its military capability commensurate with its political standing on the continent and firm intentions to kickstart its arms manufacturing industry. Unanswered questions regarding the underlying motives for this programme could spark fears in some continental quarters about South Africa’s intentions when it comes to the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Fears about states’ nuclear ambitions in general are likely to be heightened following the anxiety created by chronic speculation regarding the goals of Iran’s nuclear programme and North Korea’s repeated nuclear provocations.

Notwithstanding these developments, it is asserted that South Africa is unlikely to pursue a nuclear weapons building programme in future. South Africa has invested too much diplomatic capital in championing the cause of nuclear disarmament - and will be reluctant to jeopardise the international goodwill it continues to garner from former President De Klerk’s decision to voluntarily dismantle its apartheid-era nuclear weapons - to entertain thoughts of re-starting a weapons building programme. By way of further support for this assertion, observe too that South Africa does not currently possess the offensive capacity to deliver such weapons (either the aircraft or the ballistic weapons technology) and appears to harbour no intentions of building up this capacity.

One nonetheless hastens to add that this does not imply that members of the international community in general and African states in particular need not be concerned about the potential security threats posed by South Africa’s nuclear programme or should not seek greater assurances in this regard. Indeed, given the security and intelligence breaches that have characterised its nuclear programme in the recent past, the number of South Africans that have been implicated in international nuclear material smuggling networks and the increased reach and sophistication of non-state actors, it would be foolish for African states not to.

Nor does the belief that South Africa is unlikely to pursue a nuclear weapons programme nullify the possibility that the nuclear reactor building programme does not serve a foreign policy agenda. In an earlier article, we argued that South Africa’s nuclear building programme may be driven by its longstanding desire to secure a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (Boyce, forthcoming). Although possessing a nuclear arsenal appears to be a prerequisite for a place on the Security Council, South African policymakers might estimate that it might not be necessary to develop nuclear weapons to obtain a place on this body and that this goal could be more easily achieved if the country used its large pending nuclear deal to leverage support of key allies for this bid.

Before sketching out how the South African government could proceed to do so, a brief bit of background might be in order. To begin with, calls for the overhaul of the United Nations (UN) system have been mounting. South Africa has long led calls for reform of the Security Council in particular and is widely known to covet a place on this body (Davis, 2015). Given the demographic and economic changes that have taken place in the 70 years since the end of World War II and are set to accelerate during the course of the 21st century, it is unlikely that the UN will be able to resist the increasingly vocal calls for meaningful change of the UN and the Security Council indefinitely. Any changes to the status quo, however, would require the approval, if not outright support, of the five permanent members of the Security Council viz. France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and China.

In diplomatic terms, South Africa could surmise that the three Western countries would be least able to resist these calls. In such a situation, it would be crucial for any aspirant member of the Security Council to enlist the support of the two other permanent standing members of the Security Council, South Africa’s BRICS allies Russia and China. Securing their support, presumably as Africa’s representative, however, is far from assured. More so given recent falls in South Africa’s economic fortunes and the continued growth and ascendancy of potential continental rivals Nigeria, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Kenya. To out-manoeuvre these potential rivals to South Africa’s perceived pre-eminent position as Africa’s representative, the South African government may believe that a suitable enticement would be necessary to secure the blessing of key allies Russia and China.

Offering these allies a share of the lucrative contract for the building of nuclear reactors may act as sufficient inducement for support of this bid. This might explain why, for all the denials, Russian state-owned company Rosatom remains the presumptive frontrunner for the award of this tender. Due to the difficulties which the Russian economy is experiencing of late, it is unlikely that the Russian government will be able, and certainly much less willing, to offer the attractive finance guarantees which Rosatom has typically included as part of its reactor building package. The parlous state of their finances presents the ideal opportunity for South Africa to involve the Chinese on the financing side of this project. As the role of state-backed company China General Nuclear in the upcoming construction of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in the UK attests, the Chinese are increasingly willing to put up the funds for nuclear projects and not only to provide technical and engineering input.

Admittedly, given the unresolved tensions between India and China and the latent rivalry between these two nominal BRICS allies, securing Chinese support for its bid could prove a lot more tricky as China might calculate that lobbying for a change to the status quo on South Africa’s behalf might embolden India to press her own claims for a greater role in international affairs. In order to mitigate this possibility, the Chinese government may initially elect to act cautiously and opt to adopt a wait-and-see approach. In terms of this approach, one would expect that they might not actively block South Africa’s overtures in this regard but would be careful not to be seen to embrace them too enthusiastically either.

The prospect of South Africa joining the UN Security Council as a permanent member could explain President Zuma’s reported enthusiasm for the nuclear project and why he is rumoured to consider it an important part of his legacy. Being remembered as the president who gave Africa a greater voice on the global stage and secured South Africa’s role as Africa’s megaphone is probably too tantalizing a prize for President Zuma and his administration to forego. At a personal level, that one who is notorious for his perennial gaffes when it comes to knowledge of geography and foreign affairs and presides over a diplomatic corps whose frequent diplomatic faux pas have become the object of ridicule locally could be remembered for achieving this seminal foreign policy goal rather than the saintly former President Mandela or his political adversary and the man who so ignominiously fired him on suspicion of corruption charges in 2005, the pan-African idealist President Mbeki, is likely to provide even greater personal motivation for President Zuma to pursue this policy.

One is at pains to point out that the pursuit of a foreign policy agenda need not preclude the existence of a domestic political agenda. Embarking on a grand infrastructure building programme which has an indefinite contract period, as seems to be the case with nuclear building projects, grants the state the ability to dispense largesse to members of favoured groups well into the near future. Strategists in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) might estimate that this ability is essential to secure the support of key politically influential elites and thus assure ANC rule into the foreseeable future. After the ruling party’s relatively lacklustre showing in the most recent national and local government elections, the possibility that this deal could assure their party’s political dominance in the medium term might well explain the muted internal opposition to this deal and why Cabinet approved the deal so hastily late last year (2015).

This confluence of forces suggests that South Africans may need to look beyond the domestic factors such as notions of ‘state capture’ or the avariciousness of the president and a ‘predatory elite’ for example that seem to be driving speculation surrounding the government’s underlying motives and to have galvanised opposition thereto to gain a fuller understanding of the state’s motives for so doggedly pursuing this controversial project.

For critics of this deal in particular, considering the number of African nations that are planning on embarking upon nuclear programmes of their own, adopting a pan-African or internationalist perspective might prove especially useful. Pondering the nature of the relationship which South Africa wishes to cultivate with the rest of the continent in future and reaching out to stakeholders across the continent would be a good place to start.

* Dr Gerard Boyce is an Economist who is employed as a Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He writes in his personal capacity.


Boyce, G. forthcoming. Nuclear endgame: The geopolitical calculus behind South Africa’s nuclear energy programme. Alternation.

Davis, R. 2015. Analysis: Can South Africa win a seat on the UN Security Council? Daily Maverick, 22 September 2015.

Web address: Date accessed: 21 September 2016

Ensor, L and Paton, C. 2016. State’s nuclear plan takes off. Business Day, 8 September 2016

Web address: Date accessed: 9 September 2016



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