Meltdown by default

Sara Gon | Jun 15, 2019
The Chernobyl disaster demonstrated the Soviet Union's fatal flaw – the risk we face is that the ANC is South Africa’s ‘Chernobyl’.

HBO’s television series ‘Chernobyl’ has an eerie quality that derives from dramatising a true story. This is reinforced by the tangential but extraordinary detail that has gone into recreating 1980s Ukraine, a member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

The aesthetic grimness of the architecture, the interiors and the dress are those that one associates with communist countries.

‘Chernobyl’ is a five-part series about the explosion in Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It was the worst nuclear accident in history.

What is most terrifying about the incident is how it exposed the ideological corruption of the Communist Party and the moral turpitude, secrecy and dishonesty needed to keep a centralised political system alive, even as the USSR was collapsing in on its own contradictions.

After the revolution in 1917, four socialist republics were established on the territory of the former Russian empire: the Russian and Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republics, and the Ukrainian and Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republics.

After the Second World War, Stalin said he wanted a buffer zone of friendly states around Russia to prevent invasion in future. During the war, communists from the countries of Eastern Europe occupied by Germany escaped to Moscow and set up communist governments in exile.

As the Red Army drove the Nazis back, it occupied large areas of Eastern Europe and the allies agreed that Eastern Europe could be a Soviet 'sphere of influence’. The countries that the Red Army ‘liberated' saw communist-dominated governments take power. The pattern was for communists to ensure that they controlled the army, set up a secret police force, and began to arrest their opponents. Non-communists were gradually beaten, murdered, executed and terrified out of power.

By 1949, all the governments of Eastern Europe, except Yugoslavia, were hardline Stalinist regimes.

Initially the strength of the Soviet command economy was its ability to rapidly mobilise resources and direct them into productive activities that emulated those of advanced Western economies. However, by adopting existing technologies rather than developing their own, the Soviet Union failed to foster an environment capable of stimulating further technological innovation. Russia was also heavily reliant on its extensive oil and gas reserves.

After about two decades of high growth rates, the USSR’s command economy began to stagnate in the 1970s. The flaws and inefficiencies of the Soviet system had become apparent.

Mikhail Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) on 11 March 1985. His primary domestic goals were to jump-start the economy from its low-growth period of 1963 to 1982, and to streamline the huge government bureaucracy.

One year into this position, Gorbachev was faced with the tragedy of Chernobyl. On 26 April 1986 in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR, an accident occurred during a safety test on a common – RBMK – Soviet reactor type.

The test in the No. 4 nuclear reactor was intended to simulate a power outage and to develop a safety procedure for keeping reactor cooling water circulating until the emergency diesel-powered generators could provide power to keep the plant operating safely.

This gap between the outage and restarting the cooling process was about one minute and had been identified as a potential safety problem which could cause core overheating.

Three tests had been conducted since 1982, all unsuccessfully. This fourth occasion was beset by numerous problems: the test had been delayed by ten hours and the reactor operating shift that had specifically prepared for the test procedure was replaced by the next shift. The night shift had very limited time to prepare for and carry out the experiment.

The test went badly wrong. The destruction of the reactor core and subsequent fires released more than 400 times the amount of radioactive fallout than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.

Russia’s official response tested Gorbachev’s new doctrine of glasnost (openness); it failed. Communist Party officials acted quickly to suppress information about the severity of the disaster, ordering May Day parades in the affected area to proceed as planned, even knowing the risk of radiation exposure.

Western reports about the dangerously high levels of wind-caried radioactivity were dismissed as gossip – while government officials collected Geiger counters from science classrooms.

The radiation leak was brought under control on 4 May, but Gorbachev did not issue an official statement to the public until 14 May, 18 days after the event. He described the disaster as a ‘misfortune’ and pilloried Western media coverage as a ‘highly immoral campaign’ of ‘malicious lies’.

Propaganda was increasingly at odds with the daily experiences of those suffering from radiation poisoning. Trust in the Soviet system had been shattered. Decades later, Gorbachev admitted that ‘even more than my launch of perestroika, [Chernobyl] was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later’.

Howard Feldman, looking back on an event which occurred when he was 17, noted that the world, and particularly Eastern Europe, came close to a catastrophic disaster. ‘The control of information, particularly in the Soviet Union, managed to reduce the panic and downplay the seriousness of the event. And yet we cannot shake the feeling that this was major and that one day we would know more.’

In this, Feldman writes (The ANC’s Chernobyl, News24, 12 June), the Soviet calamity is a metaphor for events closer to home. He describes the governing party’s handling of recent events as the ANC’s Chernobyl. They include Ace Magashule’s Reserve Bank ‘escapade’, which included a test of our credulity in the claim that his Twitter account had been hacked; the resignation of eight (now 11 or 12) ANC MPs; and the train wreck that is the public protector.

‘It is almost as though there is a quiet acceptance that this "meltdown" always needed to happen, and that South Africans would be wise to simply stand aside and let it all play out. There seems to be a further, quiet confidence that a few years from now, like with Chernobyl, we will start to understand just what occurred, how dangerous it was and how important May and June 2019 were in terms of the political landscape of the country. In the meantime, it is best we don our hazmat suits, access iodine and pray that the fallout is limited to those who deserve it.’

Feldman may be a tad optimistic. However, it would do well for the ANC to note that on 1 January 1991 the Soviet Union was the largest country in the world, covering 22 400 000 square kms, nearly one-sixth of Earth’s land surface. Its population numbered more than 290 million and 100 distinct nationalities lived within its borders. It also boasted an arsenal of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and its sphere of influence extended throughout eastern Europe. Within a year, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.

Communist countries, by their nature, centralise their economies and as a result, when crises strike, they cannot correct themselves as capitalist economies can. Repression is a sine qua non as a means to keep society under control as economies stagnate and then destruct.

If the Soviet Union, which included Russia and East Germany, couldn’t survive, then South Africa under a communist government and all that that implies, will not survive either.

The risk is that perhaps the ANC is South Africa’s Chernobyl.

 

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