Tell me a little bit about your journey as an activist and how you landed on environmental activism.
It was not just a personal journey but rather a journey of a collective. From its inception, Earthlife Africa, the environmental justice organization I work for, has been an anti-nuclear organization. When the government started looking at nuclear energy, we tried talking with them. Our talks were not very fruitful until a Russian partner organization notified us of an intergovernmental agreement South Africa had signed with an energy company, ‘Rosatom’. In the agreement, if things didn’t go right with the nuclear reactors, Rosatom would not be held responsible – it would be South Africa’s responsibility.
We started talking to more and more organizations. Liz McDaid, “Eco-Justice Lead” for the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, and I, filed the founding affidavit for the case and she provided a supporting affidavit on behalf of her organization. Our case was grounded in South Africa’s Bill of Rights that states, “everyone has a right to a safe environment.”
Ultimately, we decided to take the issue to court because the doors were closed no matter how much we knocked. Our campaign brought various organizations together on this one issue, as energy issues intersect in nearly all other interests. I think the pressure that people exerted on the government is actually the key that brought us to where we are today and partially why we were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize. We’ve been saying that the prize is not my prize, it’s not her prize, it’s our prize, as South Africans. We’re all in this together.
One of the concerns of this campaign was how the government of South Africa did not allow transparency or citizen engagement on this issue. Is changing that dynamic a lasting legacy of this campaign in South Africa?
We hope that in the future, the government will be much more transparent and allow people to become part of decision-making processes. The lack of transparency and prevalence of corruption were issues that were addressed in the court ruling. The government had acted unconstitutionally and unlawfully with respect to the peoples’ right to information, and their rights to express themselves. They had also violated policies that deal with procurement issues in South Africa. These rights are enshrined into the Constitution. These types of processes are supposed to be public, and we hope that from the court ruling, things will be done differently.
Part of your work is aimed at encouraging the engagement of women, specifically women of color, in environmental fights. What are the key barriers to that engagement now, and how are you working to mitigate those barriers?
That’s ongoing work. It is more about how to expand those efforts. In South Africa, ordinary women who are impacted negatively by policies have never been part of decision making processes. Often, information is presented in very scientific, academic and economic language. This is not the language that ordinary people speak. That’s one of the barriers we can change. We can demystify information. There are more women in the world than men, so it’s women who should be at the forefront of these issues and in decision-making roles.
Within this campaign, women were much more active than any other group. So, this victory was a victory for women. It’s quite important however for us to make sure that the activism continues and doesn’t end here.
Much of my future work is to ensure that we get more women involved because women are much closer to issues. They bear the burden of injustices, whether environmental, social or economic. As people in the world, there should not be any discrimination, whether it’s against men or women. It’s up to women to take up this issue in order to play a role and have a say in decisions that impact their futures.
What concerns you most about nuclear developments and how has your work as an environmental activist and women’s rights activist informed your work on nuclear issues?
Nuclear is painted as the energy for the future and we are told nuclear energy is climate neutral. Nuclear energy is not climate neutral. The nuclear fuel chain is carbon intensive, and the construction of nuclear reactors takes a very long time. The country cannot afford to build nuclear reactors, so that means that we have to borrow money. The cost overruns are going to make this kind of electricity very expensive. A lot of South Africans would not be able to access it in their lifetimes because it takes so long to deliver. They’ll be living in everlasting debt for generations to come. The other concern is the waste. The high-level waste is stored next to the plants themselves. Low-level waste is stored about 600 kilometers away from the plant. There, the soil is poisoned and the vegetation is dying, impacting people who live nearby with dangerously high levels of radioactivity.
Another key issue is around water. Nuclear energy requires a lot of water, and in the Southern African countries we are water scarce. We need a ‘least cost’ energy option which does not have collateral costs that would come from the nuclear fuel dangers. When people have access to electricity, it should be electricity that is not harmful to them.
What unique intersections do you see women specifically being affected by nuclear issues?
The direct link I see is around energy poverty. It will benefit women because billions, even trillions of Rands won’t be spent in order to have a decentralized electric system. Women are also the caretakers in society. With the effects of radioactivity, it is women who often take care of those who are sick, those who develop cancers, or children born with various types of defects. It’s women who would be caring for them continuously.
How do you think this campaign was impacted because of the fact that it was led by women? As you said, the campaign was fueled and dominated by women – staying loud and present in the streets.
The campaign, though we were mainly women, still had men who participated, and we complemented each other very well. We didn’t even realize that there were more women in the campaign until one journalist raised that point. For us, it was the norm. In other organizations, there are men and women, some led by women, others led by men. It was a combination of the two stepping up and taking up the initiative together.
You and Liz McDaid were up against some incredibly powerful forces and you’ve mentioned some threats of violence in previous interviews. How did power play out in the campaign and how you were able to overcome any discrepancies?
Mostly what we experienced, and this is normal in any society, is that when you find yourself with different views held by other people, your situation depends on how you react to those different views. We live in a country of complexities, so even if somebody differs with you or says things that are negative or threatening, that is something one must expect in any situation where you differ with others.
Both myself and Liz [McDaid] come from the [Apartheid] liberation struggle. We’ve been through a lot. As an activist from that age and time you say, ‘this is what I want to see happening’ and you expect to encounter the negatives from that. What is important is maintaining clarity of purpose.
Lastly, what are you focused on now?
I have three focuses. The first is monitoring what is coming from the government. Last October, we had to take the government to court again because there were still pronouncements saying that nuclear was intended to be part of the energy mix. The second focus is to build upon the momentum we’ve established in order to get more women continually involved in this campaign. We need women to understand the legislation and policy around the issue and to put a human face to energy policy in this country. Thirdly, we are aware that Rosatom has signed various intergovernmental agreements for cooperation with other African countries. We are now stepping into civil society within different countries to build a pan-African anti-nuclear movement.
Just to add a quick note – my work is not only focused on anti-nuclear struggles; my work is also focused on coal struggles. What I would say is that we’re working on ‘energy democracy’ – making sure that there is energy democracy and energy justice in South Africa.
Makoma Lekalakala grew up in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, a hub for resistance during South Africa’s Apartheid. She became a young activist at her church, engaged in a range of issues that included women’s rights, social, economic and environmental justice.
Today, Lekalakala is the director at Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, a group designed “to encourage women to become more involved in energy and climate policy-making.” Through her work at Earthlife Africa, Lekalakala recently teamed up with fellow environmental activist Liz McDaid of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI). Together, after learning about a secret agreement between South Africa and Russia, she and McDaid spearheaded a women-led effort to challenge government corruption and nuclear energy policy.
Recognized for their tiresome and often highly dangerous efforts, Lekalakala and McDaid were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018.