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Nuclear ruling shows people power does work

Apr 30 2017 16:27
Mandi Smallhorne*

THANK you, Judge Lee Bosalek. For now, anyway, we celebrate your judgment, the decision that shelves the nuclear deal. I have no doubt (since so much is riding on it) that we will face a huge blowback from the people currently occupying positions of power, but for now, well, champagne is in order.

I think perhaps two vitally important things stand out about this decision. And they’re not about the fact that this decision resolves all the much-disputed issues around nuclear versus renewables. Because, of course, it doesn’t even begin to. No, they’re about living in a real democracy.

One: no decision of such enormous consequence to the people of South Africa should ever have been taken in the absence of a public consultation process. And it should never happen again. Nothing about us without us. This should go without saying. This is the spirit of the democracy that was so hard won. Few of us who queued all day to vote on April 27 1994 would have envisaged a time when our new government would plunge us into semi-eternal debt in this way.

A debt of over a R1trn – nearly as much as the total revenue collected for 2017 – is not a simple matter of pursuing the government’s mandate to ensure the smooth provision of energy. As Lameez Omarjee wrote in September last year, “The repayments on a R1.2trn loan come to R100bn a year. This will put a dent in government’s budget to supply basic needs such as education, healthcare, social welfare and public transport.”

These are dents that we can ill afford in a country pretty close to meltdown because of persistent inequality and massive failures to address the issues.

In a relatively simple matter like Gauteng’s e-tolls, the failure to consult widely and thoughtfully has resulted in an ongoing rebellion which means that there is substantial under-collection. You’d think government might have taken the hint and thought about possibly doing some public consultation on the nuclear deal. (Sorry, ignore that, bad joke: of course not. Hints, no matter how unsubtle, do not work on this government, do they. And the drive behind the deal has little to do with what the public needs.)

But let’s just say it anyway: democracy is not just a matter of a once-in-five-years vote and that’s it, you get to play with the assets (handing out prospecting and mining licences like sweeties, for example, without thought for the impact on communities and precious water resources) and wallow in the money that magically comes into the kitty every year.

Democracy should always be a feedback loop between government and people. You should always have in mind our concerns and needs. Always. Nothing about us WITHOUT US. Geddit?

Two: this matter only came before the court because of civil society action. Two organisations fuelled by passion and very little else. A tiny core of paid staff and reserves of volunteers taking on the behemoth, the T. Rex of government – raising funds to challenge a monster that has shown it has no hesitation in using public funds to pursue legal actions, right into the cannon’s mouth.

(And let’s digress here for one second to remember this: Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, or Safcei, had to call on donors to fund the legal challenge. Their costs will now have to be repaid to them – but it will come out of our purse, our tax monies. I find that makes me grind my teeth at night. Endless, endless unnecessary legal costs for actions aimed at holding government to account or getting government to simply do what it should be doing, and we the people have to pay.)

David-and-Goliath contest

But time and again – I think back to fundamentally importanft work done by the Treatment Action Campaign and Section27, for example – these David-and-Goliath contests show that people do have power and can win against the leviathan.

THIS is democracy in action: small groups of passionate people championing a cause and dancing on the high-wire of activism.

We can all do this – or at the very least, support this.

We are very close to disaster in this country. There is enormous anger out there; unsurprising anger, given just how little has been done to tackle the desperate poverty and inequality so many South Africans are still stuck in. We ended apartheid 23 years ago, but we have not ended separateness, division.

For so many still to be hopelessly trapped in terrible poverty is simply untenable, unplayable, unworkable. It has to change. I want it to change because we, the people, all the people, together decide to become activists, to work and sacrifice for a transformed, metamorphosed country that functions in the interests of all the people; and not because we collapse into an explosion of blind rage and violence which will take generations to recover from.

Let’s take Safcei and Earthlife Africa’s example. Let’s all start thinking about what we can practically do to fight for a country that is fairer, more just, and kinder.

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

mandi smallhorne  |  opinion
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