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