Liz McDaid (left) and Makoma Lekalakala (right) near the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, which dates from apartheid South Africa's nuclear weapons program era in the 1970's. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)
Two of the seven winners of the 2018 Goldman Environmental prize were a team of grassroots activists from South Africa. Their efforts quashed a secret deal between Russia and the South African government to build expensive and wasteful nuclear power plants. Liz McDaid and Makoma Lekalakala tell host Steve Curwood how they were able to derail the shadowy project, and why they believe with an abundance of sunlight and wind, nuclear has a minimal role in South Africa’s energy profile going forward.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Every year, we feel honored to celebrate the Goldman Environmental prize winners, extraordinary brave souls who stood up to vested interests, corruption, political repression and industry bullying to protect their homes and environment. This year’s winners are as courageous as ever – and have proved equally as effective.
A prize is awarded to activists in each inhabited region of the world, and today, we’re joined by the winners from Africa, Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid. These women are long-time community activists who joined forces to push back against a secret nuclear power deal forged between South Africa and Russia. It was crafted behind closed doors but eventually stalled because the two launched a lawsuit that blocked the project on the grounds of improper collusion for this $76 bn project. Welcome to Living on Earth, Makoma and Liz!
MCDAID: Thank you very much.
LEKALAKALA: A pleasure.
CURWOOD: So, tell me about this secret nuclear deal. How did you come to learn of its existence?
MCDAID: Well it was Earthlife Africa. Makoma actually got a tipoff from one of their partners in Russia. In terms of the energy plan that the plan had been manipulated to include nuclear energy when scientifically, if you had to look at it, it wasn't necessary. So and it certainly seemed there was something going down on the nuclear deal. So, when the story broke that this deal had been signed, it was a vindication of something we had a suspicion about.
LEKALAKALA: Because this was something that should have never happened. Our government should have never signed that intergovernmental agreement. We come from a past where we fought so hard to bring about the democratic dispensation that we live in, and if things happened that we were against, still happen within what we call it democratic dispensation, that was wrong.
MCDAID: So, obviously under those circumstances, people were getting really excited. We're a very unequal society, and suddenly we were being asked to to pay back for a project that nobody wants. And when you start talking about livelihoods, social needs, education and all of that that would be swept away if the government indebted itself to a foreign government to the tune of what is $1 trillion Rand which would be the equivalent of the annual budget of the country.
CURWOOD: Makoma, how did you feel when you found out about the deal?
LEKALAKALA: It was horrifying. I was horrified, and that's why we had to act and hold our public servants and those who are in decision-making powers accountable because people had sacrificed their lives for good governance. People have sacrificed their lives to be able to be part of the decision-making process, but moreover was that in the Bill of Rights of South Africa, everyone has the right to live in an environment that is safe for their being, and they also have an obligation to ensure that you protect the environment.
CURWOOD: It sounds like there wasn't a whole lot of transparency around this nuclear deal there.
MCDAID: Well, just to give you a couple of examples is the Minister of Energy signed the Russian agreement on the outskirts of fringes of some nuclear conference and it turned out that the president signed the permission for her to sign this deal the day before, which doesn't sound very open. And then a decision that the government made to take on the nuclear deal was made behind the scenes, and then only released two years later, and that the decision is supposed to have had public participation, but there was none.
CURWOOD: To what extent people feel that money changed hands? You've had corruption issues in South Africa. Your former President Jacob Zuma did not have a great reputation along those lines.
MCDAID: Well, I think as we were challenging this nuclear deal, more and more started to emerge about state capture and certainly when we look at who benefited from some of the preparatory contracts that were awarded, it was friends of the president. It seemed very much that his presidency was associated with a very hard push to try and get this nuclear deal through against the wishes of civil society.
CURWOOD: Now, you know, going back a few years there have been electric power shortages in South Africa – rolling blackouts and people very concerned about it - why is nuclear power bad news for South Africa, given some of the difficulties with people getting electricity?
MCDAID: Well, if we look at those blackouts, and some of us have also had suspicions around it, but we ended up as suddenly putting all our efforts into a number of coal fired power stations to the point that we now have excess electricity, and if you have excess electricity, even though you built these things, you've got to pay for them. And so, electricity prices have been going up very steeply. Now, you want to bring in a nuclear reactor – not just one, a whole pack of them on one big project - and that would have a huge impact on the electricity price and unneeded.
CURWOOD: So, talk to me about the obstacles you faced in persuading the South African leaders to reject this nuclear deal?
LEKALAKALA: It was basically not really obstacles that we faced much because we knew that what we were doing was the right thing. Our main role was to try and explain to people what this intergovernmental agreement said and why we were finding a court case against the president of the country, why we were filing a case against the department of environment, and also the national energy regulator of South Africa and lately we added Eskom because they came in back door trying to dismiss our case.
CURWOOD: So, South Africa already has a nuclear power station. Tell me about the plant and what have the issues been in managing that plant and the subsequent waste?
MCDAID: Well, yes, we've had a power plant, which is built from the apartheid era Koeberg is right in the bottom corner, right next to the city of Cape Town, and the common knowledge is that when you build nuclear plants generally it's related to nuclear weapons. And South Africa post-democracy closed down its nuclear weapons and this is like a legacy project that we had to deal with for generations because it's creating nuclear waste, it's had a few near misses, and it's very close to a city of four million people, and what we would be looking to do is close it down because nuclear energy is outdated technology, we're going into the future, and the future for Africa can certainly be solar, wind and other renewable sources.
CURWOOD: You know, one thing that struck me about this proposed deal was like nuclear or not it's certainly not the latest or safest technology that they were going to buy.
MCDAID: Well, when you when you think of what resources we have in terms of one of the highest solar resources in the world, we think of the trends globally, then when you start looking at where nuclear is going, it seems to us that this is another instance of attempts to dump technology that's outdated onto the developing world. So, certainly nuclear shouldn't be part of an energy mix in our view.
CURWOOD: So, what was your approach? You decided to protest, you went out, you hired lawyers to sue. How did you respond?
LEKALAKALA: We had a multi-pronged strategy. I think at the first go, we never wanted to go to court. That was something far-fetched for us. All we needed was to have engagement with the bureaucrats within the government departments. We wanted to understand, to have a dialogue, a discussion, so that we could come to a common understanding, but unfortunately that was not opened to us, and we had protests, we had petitions written, we had demonstrations, we had marches. In Johannesburg, we had continuous pickets at the Department of Energy. They were a multi-pronged strategy. We used to go to different organizations – community based organizations, faith based organizations, interest groups – to talk about this issue and also to link up people's interest issues to this nuclear deal.
For example, myself as an ordinary South African, I have an issue with access to electricity. I'm connected to the grid, but a lot of my peers and the women that I live with are unable to purchase electricity. But if we have a decentralized electricity system where either it can be socially owned or where people can have their own kind of mini-grids in their homes, that would be of benefit to a whole lot of people that would improve their lives. Everyone has got a right to to energy.
CURWOOD: You have plenty of sunshine.
LEKALAKALA: We do have plenty of sunshine. That's why we're talking about the decentralized electricity system. That's because we've got alternatives. There is no political will to invest in renewable energy technology though the government has made a commitment internationally to reduce greenhouse gases.
CURWOOD: So, in the end how did you get this stopped? I gather you got a ruling from the Western Cape High Court, so that's not even the country's highest court.
MCDAID: So, well, the High Court in the Western Cape is one of the senior courts, and if the government had appealed our decision, we would have had to go on to the next, the constitutional court, but fortunately for us our case was really strong and I suppose the basis was, if you follow due process, you follow the law, you would have never come out with a nuclear deal. So, the courts found that the government had acted completely illegally on a whole number of fronts and so they pushed the reset button and said, ‘No, all of this is off the table.’
CURWOOD: So, how do you feel and what kind of legal precedent do you think it set in terms of any future nuclear projects that might crop up there in South Africa?
MCDAID: Well, I think it sends a strong signal to those that would lobby for illegal and corrupt deals, that the judiciary is standing firm, and we hope that the new presidency will uphold that process of the law, and for us I think it was a victory. We felt good that we had achieved this because we would like to see a legacy of a just energy transition and good governance. That's what we were fighting for.
CURWOOD: So, South Africa has shown the way in a number of issues around the world. So, talk to me about what kind of reform needs to take place among nuclear facilities elsewhere. Which existing projects or ones that are in development do we need to be looking out for?
MCDAID: I mean, South Africa, what we've done is – is stopped what to see it be an attempt to push something down our throats to impose a project that wasn't needed and to use nefarious methods to get it right, and we need to be careful that the same thing isn't happening in other African countries, and to share our experience with them so that we can be a united voice and a united front to make sure that what we want is a energy transition communities can own and have power over decisions that affect their lives, and differently when you have large clunky nuclear power stations, you don't have that.
CURWOOD: The two of you were raised in apartheid South Africa. I imagine that growing up under apartheid had some sort of hand in shaping you as an activist.
LEKALAKALA: I think we're just continuing with what we lived through and there's values attached to that, I think these are the values that are driving us to continue ensuring that our hard won democracy is protected and the rights that have been won are not reversed. We would not want to see an oppressive government anymore. All what we want is energy justice and energy democracy for the sake of the planet.
MCDAID: Yes, I became an anti-apartheid activist long before I was an environmental activist. Being in that world of ... yeah, fighting a government that was unjust kind of forged you a bit in a way of what one might experience now. So, now we have democracy and we fought for democracy and certainly now working in the environmental justice field for me it was like we can't let that roll back.
CURWOOD: Africa has been saddled with inappropriate energy technology, some would say – huge dams, attempts to build nuclear stations, a lot of coal – in a time when people are moving to carbon-free energy sources. What would you say to folks who are involved in development in Africa about what you've done and what should happen ahead?
MCDAID: So, we really...what I think we're saying is, ‘Don't dump outdated technology on us. Look at what is appropriate for the people of Africa.’ And this is an opportunity for Africa to get ahead of the curve. We've got the renewable energy. People have a say into development, which actually addresses the inequity and the poverty issues in a way that's both environmentally friendly and socially responsible.
LEKALAKALA: Each and every citizen of any country has got a right to hold their government accountable, and that's what we did. We stepped up. We hope that what we did is an example not only to South Africans, but an example to people all over the world that if there's anything wrong that is happening and they know it's wrong, they need to stand up.
CURWOOD: South Africans Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid won this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize for activism in Africa. Thank you both for telling us your story – congratulations!
LEKALAKALA: A pleasure.
MCDAID: Thank you very much.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth