A nuclear power struggle in South Africa

4 mins read

By Sakke Teerikoski

In Spring 2018, South African grassroot activists Liz McDaid and Makoma Lekalakala were rewarded the Goldman Prize for stopping an unlawful nuclear deal of the South African government through a long court process. This was just one of many twists in the long series of corruption allegations that ultimately led to the resignation of President Jacob Zuma earlier this year. The two South African women discovered a clandestine deal between the governments of Russia and South Africa. They started protesting in the streets before they finally decided to go to court against the plans, backed by the NGOs they were part of. After an almost two-year-long court process, the High Court in South Africa then finally ruled that the government’s project had gone against the law.

As an initial remark, it should be said that today South Africa has only one commercial nuclear power plant, the Koeberg nuclear power plant on the West coast close to Cape Town. The plant has two reactors and it accounts for roughly 5 percent  of the total electricity generation in the country. African countries have recently attracted the attention of several energy companies and Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom is no exception. The Russian energy company is most likely  particularly anxious to enter the African energy market since Western sanctions on Russia are preventing it from realising some of its plans in the West.

So, who are Liz McDaid and Makoma Lekalakala? The two women are long-time activists, both with a background in anti-apartheid movements. Makoma Lekalakala is head of the Johannesburg branch of Earthlife Africa, whereas Liz McDaid works at the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI). Both had these positions already in 2014 when the first news about a secret nuclear deal with Russia were beginning to leak. They were merely grassroot activists. To challenge two powerful governments, with the quest to disrupt a lucrative nuclear deal, is both difficult and daunting. Nonetheless, these two women managed to get backing from an ever-growing coalition of people to stop the construction plans of the new nuclear reactors.

It started when Makoma Lekalakala got a tip from a fellow environmental activist in Russia, revealing the secret deal to her. The government of South Africa later presented the plans to the people and parliament through a media release in which they stated that an intergovernmental agreement had been made with Russia about the procurement of up to eight nuclear power plants with a total capacity of generating up to 9.6 GW of power. The whole set of deals was later to include contracts with South Korea and the US. Arguing that the procurement had not been done according to the laws on public procurement and that no public consultation had been made, Earthlife and SAFCEI approached court in October 2015.

The nuclear deal got huge political attention and the opposition to it grew. After it became clear that the deal could cost South Africa up to one trillion rand (roughly 60 billion euros), voices were raised about the country not even being able to afford the planned nuclear power plants. Corruption allegations were thrown into the debate when it became known that the very influential Gupta family owned an important uranium mine. Finance minister Nhlanhla Nene was fired as a result.

On the 26th of April 2017, the High Court of South Africa ruled that the whole project was against the constitution because the procurement had not been done according to rules. Moreover, South Africa’s parliament had not been consulted about the plans. All contracts were ruled void.

In hindsight, one can be surprised about how the government ignored their own laws and rules, and carried out such a procurement without first consulting the parliament. The project was an exceptionally big project for the government to decide upon alone – it had a budget of 60 billion euros. Even the number of planned nuclear power stations (up to eight) was a high for one single country to build all at once (Sweden’s three nuclear power sites have eight active reactors in total today). Such an expansion of South Africa’s nuclear industry would have been unprecedented. It was natural that such a project would meet heavy opposition by the public. One way to understand it is to see the affair as an indicator of a high level of corruption in South Africa – a corruption that did in fact ultimately lead to the resignation of President Zuma. In any case, the court ruling is a landmark victory for environmental activists in the country.

What happens next? Is the story over? President Jacob Zuma eventually resigned due to massive corruption allegations against him. A new government under president Cyril Ramaphosa is in power since February this year. The country does struggle with an energy problem and it is not unlikely that nuclear power plants will return to the political agenda. Liz and Makoma won the fight against the unlawful reactors, but grassroot movements still have much work to be done if they aim to steer South African energy policy towards more renewables and less nuclear power. As for Rosatom, Russian-built nuclear power plants are also planned to be built in El Dabaa in Egypt and in so far unannounced locations in Nigeria. For grassroot activists worldwide, this South African case is an important source of inspiration. What Liz and Makoma managed to set in motion shows that the power of grassroot movements should never be underestimated. It shows that one is never too small to make a huge difference and act for change. It shows the beauty of active citizenship and democracy.

The Goldman Environmental Prize has annually been awarded to grassroot environmental activists since 1989. Six prizes are awarded each year, one each for Africa, Europe, Asia, North America, South and Central America as well as Oceania and other island regions. This year’s prize for Europe went to French marine life activist Claire Nouvian. The prize has only once been awarded to Sweden – to Eha Kern and Roland Tiensuu in 1991.

Sakke Teerikoski is a long-time member of UF and is currently the vice president of the UFS. When he’s not busy writing for Uttryck, he dwells in the realms of space satellites and, previously, EU affairs. Sakke is an engineer, currently based in Uppsala.

Illustrator: Marina Skovgaard Dokken

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