Anti-Nuclear Energy Activism in South Africa: Interview with Makoma Lekalakala

Anti-Nuclear Energy Activism in South Africa: Interview with Makoma Lekalakala

. 8 min read

Makoma Lekalakala is a South African environmental activist and serves as the Director of Earthlife Africa, Johannesburg. She was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018 for her work to stop the construction of nuclear reactors in South Africa. She used the court system to fight a government deal with Russia to build nuclear reactors that was done in secret, without public consultation.

You started as a youth activist through your church and then jumped between different areas of activism, like women's rights and economic justice, until you eventually chose environmental justice. How do your earlier experiences switching between activist causes help inform your present work as an environmental activist?

I don't think I have been moving from one to another form of activism. It's still the same thing. If you really want a utopia, you need to have a belief, and you need to make it happen. So for me, it has never been changing from one form to the other. Each is interlinked, whether it's social justice issues, other justice issues, or environmental issues.

A lot of your work has mentioned how women disproportionately bear burdens associated with energy consumption. What kind of efforts have you advocated for in order to better incorporate women's voices into energy policy?

I’d emphasize that women in South Africa, maybe in other parts of the world [as well], are managers in their own homes. They're the ones who know what is needed, what needs to be done. So [presumably], with energy, [it] would be the same.

But, however, what has been happening is that women have not been at the center of policymaking around energy that impacts them so much. In our societies, not a lot of women are educated to that level. Particularly poor women are not educated to the level that will be [necessary] to understand and analyze policy. What is written, to them, is just scientific academic language. But at the end of the day, it impacts them largely.

Together with a few women, we've started what we call the Women, Energy, and Chairmanships Forum. This is where women from different backgrounds, particularly from poor communities, come in on a monthly basis, learn about different policies, share their stories, and strategize as to what form of action they should take. That's why we saw women now coming into the policy space, but empowered in speaking in their own languages, putting a human face into the policy discourse. I think that has helped a lot in the sense that more women are now able to converse on policy, whether it's energy, climate change, waste, gender, or any other issues that affect them directly. Poor women are able to engage with it. I’m specifically emphasizing poor women, because they're the ones who have a lot of barriers, not being able to find themselves participating in the national policy discourse.

You've received awards and much recognition for your work stopping the secret South African-Russian nuclear agreement. In what ways has the government continued to sidestep your demands for accountability? Do you expect them to continue making secret agreements to provide for energy?

Firstly, I know when I took the prize I had said I'm accepting on behalf of millions of other people that have been part of the community. I was just [a] representative—it was not really for me. The work that I do, it's cool that it's been recognized. But, I accepted this award to inspire particularly ordinary people like me to take action. To say someone like you can be able to do it, and if you feel right about doing something, step up and do it. That's the whole basis of accepting awards, and I hope that this inspires other people.

What I always say is that we see politicians at the helm of the departments as ministers of energy or ministers of environment. But that does not mean that the decisions are finally taken up by them. If you understand the governance system, I think it's the same all over the world: you find a political appointee at the helm. Unless [the minister] feels strongly about an issue or has got a different view from what he or she is being advised on, the person will take a different [stance]. But at this time, we see that the bureaucrats that have been in departments for over 25 years are the final decision makers. They're the ones who are advising the ministers.

What we've seen is that, with the nuclear issue, we challenged the procurement of nuclear energy. That's what the case was all about. It was not about technology. And the bureaucrats came back, ignoring the court ruling, wanting to resuscitate the process again, and we had to take them to court again. Then, they came back again last year, and we had to remind them of the admission that was made by the previous minister that they would not go ahead, and they’re still trying to [go ahead].

We may say it's the government, because it’s the bureaucrats in departments. But at the end of the day, we want to have people who are taking up leading roles in the ministry to also be informed, to have a background, and not just [accept] whatever they are being advised on because that's the problem.

We also don't like going to court. It's not what we want to do. All we want to do is hold our government accountable and for them to protect the constitutional democracy that we have, particularly that they take an oath when they take up their leadership positions of protecting South Africa. But they should do it in a way that also [enshrines] representative democracy, so that they don’t see themselves taking positions that are unjustifiable and decisions that are unpopular.

Anything can happen. But we’re monitoring and we’re using the Constitution of South Africa. We're using legislative policies and the regulations that we have, because they are the ones that guide [policy-making]. We expected the ministers—or those who are part of decision-making processes at a higher level in government—to know much better than to be reminded by us as citizens.

Presumably, most of your opposition came from the South African government, the South African company Eskom that supplies the country’s energy, and the Russian company Rosatom that wanted to build the plant. Other than these groups, what was the strongest source of interest group opposition to your movement? Were there many environmental or labor movements that supported the building of nuclear power?

As some analysts have said, nuclear is an emotional issue. It's also an issue that reminded us of our past. We have the only nuclear power station in the whole of Africa at Koeberg, which was built during the apartheid era. It was built solely to hide South Africa's military nuclear ammunition. It was not for providing electricity.

The government, or let me say the parastatal that is supposed to provide electricity, had rolling blackouts. That means we had load shedding for days in different areas. People were standing up and saying, “No we need electricity. We need energy security.” It was not the first time that we heard that. We only heard that when the country wanted to build the fourth biggest coal-fired power station in the world. That's the argument they used: that we don't have energy security. Around 2012 or 2013, we also heard that [argument] when the new nuclear proposed reactors were also introduced.

The government, or those who are for nuclear, have used the people's feelings and interest to say that we really need electricity. You could see that some of the people who were supporting the nuclear build were those that were not aware as to exactly what the implications of this nuclear build was, how much was it going to cost, and how much waste is going to be there. Some of us in our lifetime will never have electricity from the proposed nuclear reactors that are going to be built. We were able to change a lot of people's mindsets in between by making examples of what is happening in other countries.

We were also getting a lot more people critiquing what we're doing to say, people need jobs. But we are also asking, are those going to be decent jobs that will be created? A decent job would mean that it's not going to be harmful for you, and not harmful for the environment.

What was very interesting was that much of the criticism came from politically-connected people. These politically-connected people were connected to the President, and some of them were elected to the African National Congress. And that's why we came in to say there’s corruption going on. History has shown us that, with nuclear, there's a lot of corruption. There's a lot of underhand in decisions and actions taking place. That's why we had to go to court.

Despite all the criticism that we got, going to court was the best thing that we ever did. On procurement issues, not on technology, because if we were going to court to argue about technology, I don't think we would have stopped the construction of the proposed reactors. But we won on procurement issues. We knew that not every rule in the book—constitutionally, regulatory, legislative, and policy-wise—[had] been followed.

When we reversed the decision to construct a nuclear reactor, we were overwhelmed because even the people [who] we never thought would congratulate us, did. The case became part of the national discourse, and there are other groups that use the case to question the former President. That got a lot of traction, and that's when a lot of people decided to support us. The few that didn't support were those who were in the nuclear industry. Luckily, some of them are now coming back to say “Hey, you guys were right. What do we do with the waste? What do we do with radioactivity? There's so much secrecy within the nuclear power plant itself, so you should continue to go fight and not let this thing happen.”

You created a wide coalition to combat nuclear energy. How have you been able to tap into that coalition for other demands, outside of the anti-nuclear movement? Have the same people been involved in the anti-coal and mercury poisoning campaigns you're currently working on?

The wide movement is around justice issues. Movements that are out there, on different issues, were able to link their struggles to the anti-nuclear struggle. People who were struggling to get decent housing understood that they would never get decent housing as long as the money was going to be diverted to building or constructing these new nuclear reactors. People who were struggling with access to water understood that there was not going to be any infrastructure for them to be able to access clean drinking water based on the fact that money was going to be diverted. Students would not be able to go and study because money was going to be diverted.

Those campaigns were able to link to the struggle because the anti-nuclear struggle was not just about anti-nuclear. It was also about moving towards low-carbon development. It was a struggle around mitigation on climate change. Everyone connected to that. Like I said, the issues are interlinked. You cannot separate one from the other.

The coal movement, which I’m also part of, has challenged the government around the authorization of the coal-fired power station. Last November, they set that aside and said, “We cannot go ahead with authorizing the coal-fired power station because of the time it takes.” It was a five year struggle that we had to go through.

The movement for justice is one. It's just that at one time or the other, there’s issues that come up that would make everyone speak with one voice. And at times, you find that other campaigns are much more highlighted than the others. But at the end of the day, it's all struggles for justice that we all yearn for.

Lekalakala spoke with Nayar over Zoom on July 15, 2021. The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Cover image: Deutsche Welle