IN FOCUS | Meet the women who stopped the nuclear deal

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Kate Davies. Liz McDaid. Vainola Makan. Siphokazi Pangalele. Lydia Mogane. Makoma Lekalakala. Natasha Adonis.

These are some of the women whose names will go down in history for saving South Africa (for now, at least) from a disastrous nuclear deal with Russia that would’ve cost us trillions and most likely bankrupted the country.

For more than two years they lived and breathed the nuclear deal, getting up while it’s still dark to attend meetings, and going to bed after midnight to organise pickets, protests, public meetings and petitions. None of them would even attempt to calculate how much time went into the effort.  

Kate Davies from Safcei

Yet, true to form, none of them wants the credit for the court victory that nullified the nuclear deal.

“It was easy. It was easy to identify with because it was about our children’s future and our children’s children’s future,” says Makan (50), an activist from Right to Know (R2K) in Cape Town.

“You want to see your grandchildren live in a world free from these bad things. The legacy you leave for the next generation is what drives you. Maybe women are closer to that, bearing the burden of child birth,” says McDaid (55), spokesperson for the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (Safcei).

Davies (65), founder of Safcei, agrees that although the campaign against the nuclear deal was never meant to be a women’s effort, it certainly was driven by a group of very dedicated women.

“I come from a generation that had a lot of women who were involved in the Black Sash in our lives,” she says. “I myself was a young member of the Black Sash and so that kind of silent protest came naturally to me – something I fear the younger generations don’t know.”


Makoma Lekalakala from Earthlife Africa

It all started in 2014 when Earthlife Africa uncovered that South Africa signed a deal with Russia that nobody knew about to procure nuclear energy. Earthlife Africa started a legal process with Safcei. Kate started a vigil outside Parliament every Wednesday for when the ministers would arrive.

This vigil only ended last week after the Cape High Court ruled that all nuclear agreements made so far were unlawful and should be set aside.

“For more than two years we stood there every week to speak truth to power. Sometimes there were two people in the wind and rain. Sometimes there were 20 or 50 people. Sometimes it was only Kate. That was about knowing we could win, but that it’s a long haul and that we just had to keep going step by step,” says McDaid.

Initially the focus was on nuclear energy as an environmental issue.

“We were worried about the footprint of different energy types and the impact of high energy prices on the poor. That’s why we started asking how government makes decisions about our energy needs and that’s when we started realising that the decision making processes weren’t happening as they were supposed to,” says McDaid.

“When you look at the CSIR and the research that has been done, it’s very clear that nuclear is not needed for our energy future. So then the question becomes, why are we pushing for it? The obvious answer is that there are corrupt forces at play. From there it was a case of following the money.”

Liz McDaid from Safcei

As they prepared for the court case, they started working with other organisations such as R2K, Open Democracy, Section27 and the trade unions. They held a coalition meeting at Community House in Cape Town and more than 20 organisations showed up to find out how they could help. R2K came on board, and started to roll out mass actions, attending parliamentary meetings, organising marches to Parliament and distributing pamphlets and petitions.

“They say when you have faith in little you can be trusted with much. It was only a few of us who stood in Parliament to fight for the cause, but when the 60 000 came, we were confident that we could handle it and we had faith in our message,” says Makan.

They also realised early on that they would need the public to buy into the process and needed a media expert, so they roped in the expertise of Adonis (41), who runs her own PR firm in Cape Town.

“I wasn’t interested in the nuclear deal or anything before I came on board,” she says. “I think one of the core problems was that it was out there, but people weren’t paying attention. So we had to get the average South African – who was me – to notice the campaign.”

When they heard they won the case last Friday (with costs!), they were ecstatic.

 “The process was vindicated. The legal process was won and we had the hearts and the minds of the people behind us. In the lead up with the firing of Pravin Gordhan we had people in the streets and with Ahmed Kathrada’s memorial nuclear was a central theme. So legally, politically and in terms of the minds of people we were vindicated,” says Makan.

“We know that they’re still not going to do things on a moral basis. But politically, because of the balance of forces, and because we are going to continue to work against any deal, it will be much harder for them to do a deal with Russia.”

What is clear is that going forward any attempt to go through with the nuclear deal will have to include a public participation process and now that the public is thoroughly informed, it will be much harder for them to push the deal through. 

Vainola Makana from R2K

According to Earthlife Africa’s Makoma Lekalakala, while the court victory was expected, it only ruled on the unlawful procedure followed to procure nuclear and not the actual issue of nuclear energy. That is something that will have to be addressed going forward.

“We are for a greater investment in renewable energy, as it’s much cheaper and cleaner for the environment,” she says.

The others agree.

“We will have to educate the public. Going forward we will continue to encourage South Africans to be active citizens. It doesn’t matter if you’re a cleaner at a factory, or a street sweeper or a CEO, you have the right to say something about how things are being done in your country. The Constitution gives you that right,” says Adonis.

And while the victory in court was a major achievement for the team, it was a victory for every South African citizen.

“This judgement shows you that you can win and that you can make a difference and that the country will not be sold to the highest bidder. The people can govern,” says McDaid.

As for the tremendous display of “girl power”, the women are adamant that there are many men that they could not have done it without. There is, however, an immense sense of pride in what they've achieved. Let this victory serve as a reminder to anyone who tries to pull the wool over South Africans’ eyes again, that if you strike a woman, you strike a rock.

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