Meet the women who stopped the SA-Rus­sia nu­clear deal in its tracks

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Marli Meyer

So what ex­actly was the deal with the dodgy deal? In 2014, Makoma Lekalakala, di­rec­tor of Earth­life Africa, ob­tained a copy of the al­ready-signed nu­clear deal from a Rus­sian con­tact. In a nut­shell, it stated that Rus­sia would build eight to 10 nu­clear power sta­tions through­out South Africa, and stip­u­lated that SA would be li­able in the case of nu­clear ac­ci­dents.

‘If some­body builds you a house and has no li­a­bil­ity, it means they can build junk that will fall down, and you’ve got no re­course,’ ex­plains Liz McDaid of the South­ern African Faith Com­mu­ni­ties’ En­vi­ron­ment In­sti­tute (SAFCEI). ‘Be­cause of the way our elec­tric­ity is struc­tured, we pay for what­ever Eskom spends. If they pick the most ex­pen­sive form of elec­tric­ity, we’re go­ing to pay the most ex­pen­sive price.’

The con­struc­tion of the pro­posed nu­clear plants would have cost SA at least R1 tril­lion.

‘Then there’s in­ter­est on top of that,’ says Liz. ‘R1 tril­lion is our bud­get for the year. Even if you spread it over three years… And what hap­pens if some de­fault oc­curs? “We don’t have money be­cause we’ve spent it all.” Then the Rus­sians would say: “Sorry, you can’t pay pen­sions, you can’t pay gov­ern­ment salaries… We want our money; you com­mit­ted to it – you signed the deal.”’

Not to men­tion the detri­men­tal im­pact it would have in terms of ra­dioac­tive waste and the sur­round­ing area of each plant. The first sta­tion was set to be built on the coast of Port El­iz­a­beth where it would have raised the tem­per­a­ture of the ocean, harm­ing ma­rine life and threat­en­ing the liveli­hoods of small-scale fish­er­men.

‘The lawyers were then called in and we started to work on what we needed to do about this – was there a real deal or not?’ Liz says. ‘The South Africans de­nied it. But we had a copy of the deal, and that copy came be­fore par­lia­ment. [The Min­is­ter of En­ergy at the time] Tina Joe­mat-Pet­ters­son slipped it in among four or five other agree­ments. They were sup­posed to bring that agree­ment to par­lia­ment for de­bate and ap­proval be­fore sign­ing it. They didn’t – they just brought it and said, “Well, we signed this thing.” That was one of the im­por­tant points in the le­gal bat­tle – they couldn’t just do it with­out con­sul­ta­tion, and the fact that they did was a con­sti­tu­tional is­sue.’

‘When you fall in love with some­thing, you’ll go to great lengths to pro­tect it,’ says Makoma. ‘We fought against apartheid to start a new con­ver­sa­tion, one that brought about the kind of con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy that we have now, and we would go to higher lev­els to pro­tect it. That’s re­ally what mo­ti­vated us. We don’t want to go back to a time when de­ci­sions were made on our be­half, de­ci­sions that im­pacted neg­a­tively on us.’

Makoma and Liz’s courage and com­mit­ment re­sulted in them be­ing granted the Gold­man En­vi­ron­men­tal Prize in April this year, a pres­ti­gious an­nual ac­co­lade awarded to grass­roots en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists from the world’s six in­hab­ited con­ti­nen­tal re­gions.

Makoma’s ac­tivism be­gan dur­ing the strug­gle. To­day, her or­gan­i­sa­tion, Earth­life Africa, fo­cuses on mit­i­gat­ing cli­mate change and fight­ing for greater in­vest­ment in re­new­able en­ergy tech­nol­ogy, which Makoma says is a so­cial jus­tice is­sue.

‘Liv­ing in Soweto where peo­ple had prob­lems with ac­cess to elec­tric­ity, I had to dig up in­for­ma­tion around elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion and what can be done. That’s when my in­ter­est be­gan, even be­fore I joined Earth­life,’ she says.

Sim­i­larly, Liz was a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist be­fore she be­came an en­vi­ron­men­tal cam­paigner.

‘I did a sci­ence de­gree and be­came in­volved in the strug­gle. Jus­tice and fair play are things I’ve al­ways stood for – it’s hard­wired into my DNA to ques­tion things.’ As eco-jus­tice lead and cli­mate change co­or­di­na­tor at SAFCEI, Liz keeps an eye on de­vel­op­ments in our en­ergy sec­tor.

‘We’ve had re­ally bad things hap­pen and we couldn’t do any­thing about them – un­til even­tu­ally we did. Cor­rup­tion plays on the fact that no­body will do any­thing.’

‘The main part of my role is mon­i­tor­ing what par­lia­ment does, then at­tend­ing public hear­ings at the reg­u­la­tor when­ever there’s an elec­tric­ity price in­crease – we go up against the Eskoms and say, ‘We can’t have an­other elec­tric­ity in­crease.’ A tran­si­tion to a just en­ergy fu­ture is not just about nu­clear – it’s not just about hav­ing re­new­able en­ergy, but about hav­ing re­new­able en­ergy that will ben­e­fit peo­ple at a lo­cal level. It needs to be ac­ces­si­ble and af­ford­able.’

Makoma and Liz met about 20 years ago while work­ing to­gether on cam­paigns for Earth­life.

‘Makoma and I both fought against apartheid, so that gave us shared val­ues. We wanted the same thing: for peo­ple to have voices to speak for them­selves.’

Over the years, their or­gan­i­sa­tions have worked to­gether to­wards a just en­ergy fu­ture. This com­bined force is the very thing they har­nessed to face the mam­moth task of stop­ping the nu­clear deal in its tracks. It took mo­bil­i­sa­tion, weekly vig­ils in front of par­lia­ment, get­ting peo­ple to un­der­stand what the deal meant for the av­er­age cit­i­zen, and a lot of pa­tience and de­ter­mi­na­tion from Makoma, Liz and their teams.

‘We part­nered with like­minded or­gan­i­sa­tions,’ says Liz. ‘We spoke to peo­ple work­ing with ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion be­cause there was an as­pect of se­crecy; we part­nered with those in pop­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion be­cause we wanted to get a com­pli­cated mes­sage down to grass­roots.’ When they won the case, both women were as­ton­ished that they had been granted ev­ery­thing they’d been fight­ing for.

‘I re­mem­ber the mo­ment the judge handed down the de­ci­sion,’ says Liz. ‘I jumped up and shouted, “Yay! We got them all!” Next to me, Makoma was just teary.’

If they hadn’t fought the deal, what would have hap­pened? ‘We would have had a nu­clear build pro­gramme suck­ing all the state re­sources, which would have been much worse than Nkandla,’ says Liz. ‘We would have been pay­ing it off through high elec­tric­ity tar­iffs, and when the tar­iff couldn’t be paid, be­cause peo­ple wouldn’t have been able to af­ford it, the gov­ern­ment would have had to cough up. It would have been a death spi­ral – a se­ri­ous prob­lem eco­nom­i­cally and, po­lit­i­cally, there would have been mas­sive fall­out.’

Makoma and Liz’s story is the per­fect demon­stra­tion of the power of in­di­vid­ual ac­tion.

‘We tend to think some­body else will deal with an is­sue or that there’s noth­ing we can do, prob­a­bly be­cause of our his­tory,’ says Liz. ‘We’ve had re­ally bad things hap­pen and we couldn’t do any­thing about them – un­til even­tu­ally we did. Cor­rup­tion plays on the fact that no­body will do any­thing.’ But, she be­lieves, that’s where we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions – to take that step and arm our­selves with in­for­ma­tion.

‘It’s like build­ing a puz­zle piece by piece. Tak­ing the first step is the big­gest step. Af­ter that, ev­ery­thing else will fol­low. It starts with not turn­ing a blind eye; it’s about stand­ing up for your rights and go­ing with your gut or heart or be­lief sys­tem.’

They were over­whelmed by the re­sult of the court case – and even more so when they won the Gold­man En­vi­ron­men­tal Prize.

‘I thought it was a scam!’ says Liz. ‘It shows that the anti-nu­clear strug­gle is an is­sue that’s re­ceived in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion, and for South Africa to be at the fore­front of en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice was very pos­i­tive.’ Makoma echoes those sen­ti­ments.

‘I never thought I’d mea­sure up to the cal­i­bre of peo­ple who have won the prize be­fore – peo­ple like Kenyan en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Wan­gari Maathai and Nige­rian writer and ac­tivist Ken SaroWiwa. Even though Liz and I were awarded the prize as in­di­vid­u­als, it’s for all the peo­ple we work with. This prize is all of ours.’

De­spite their hard-won court vic­tory, we all need to stay on our toes: in De­cem­ber, the gov­ern­ment tried to slip the deal through again. ‘The de­ci­sion stated that if the gov­ern­ment wants to do any­thing with nu­clear they have to do it prop­erly, with public con­sul­ta­tion and the cor­rect le­gal pro­ce­dures,’ says Liz. Af­ter the public was ex­cluded from an ind­aba called by the min­is­ter, Liz and Makoma had their lawyers send a let­ter re­mind­ing them of the agree­ment.

‘The nu­clear in­dus­try is like nu­clear waste – it just doesn’t go away,’ says Liz with a laugh.

Makoma em­pha­sises that while the Con­sti­tu­tion is there to pro­tect us, it’s our obli­ga­tion to pro­tect our en­vi­ron­ment. As she said at the prize-giv­ing cer­e­mony: ‘We have an obli­ga­tion not to nuke our cli­mate. We also have an obli­ga­tion to hold our gov­ern­ments ac­count­able to en­sure that en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion does not take place un­der our watch.’

This pic: Makoma Lekalakala who, along with Liz McDaid, was awarded the Gold­man En­vi­ron­men­tal Prize. The two have been friends and col­leagues for 20 years.

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