Ferrial Adam is an environmental justice activist who works for Greenpeace Africa as an energy and climate change campaigner. She spoke to Justin Nurse in this week’s Pied Piper Project.
I grew up in Lenasia during the apartheid years, and I was an activist from the age of 12. That’s all I knew growing up. We’d campaign against everything, from curricula at school to the tricameral in elections in 1984. Everything was illegal, so we’d put up posters in the dead of night.
Fighting the government then shaped who I am now. I still believe we have to fight to make things better.
I studied geology at Wits University and then, after 1994, I joined the department of foreign affairs, where I worked for six years and ended up being posted to Mexico as a diplomat.
At some point I realised what I was doing wasn’t enough – and I started questioning the effectiveness of our foreign embassies. So I returned to Cape Town and did a Master’s in environmental management at UCT.
Now, specifically at Greenpeace, I work on the anti-nuclear campaign, which is a tough one as I feel like I’m fighting a huge force. The government won’t even engage with us, so it feels like trying to stop a speeding train.
The government is going to be spending R1 trillion on a technology that I think is wrong.
And it’s closing down any space for debate on social justice and environmental issues, with things like the secrecy and intelligence bills.
What are we so intent on hiding?
What are we so afraid of?
What kind of state are we becoming that we need to be more secretive?
We saw what happened with the arms deal, where there is still a lot that we don’t know. And the same thing is going to happen with the nuclear build.
Also, South Africans don’t like to question where their energy comes from, so long as they can turn on their lights. And that’s a whole other challenge.
South Africans need to ensure their voices are heard.
Most of the money for nuclear energy will actually be going to international companies with little job creation for South Africans.
We plan on spending R1 trillion in an industry that is in itself “cloak and dagger”.
Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) have been done but there aren’t even designs yet for the nuclear power stations.
Three sites have been earmarked: Thyspunt (near St Francis), Bantamsklip (near Hermanus) and Duinefontein (near Koeberg).
The government wants to build plants to generate 9 600 megawatts of nuclear energy, and the first phase, called “Nuclear One”, is for 4 000MW. So that’ll be for one power station.
There have been rumours that all three sites will be built on so that they all have the potential to go nuclear at a later stage.
The EIAs are supposed to measure the impact of the power station. But we don’t have a design so how do we measure the real impact?
The government is talking about an “envelope of parameters” where they say they’ll be using an EPR-type of nuclear plant, but they can’t give us any further details, because they haven’t yet decided who will be the supplier.
Another concern is the squid population of Jeffreys Bay.
To build the plant there they’ll be dumping millions of cubic metres of sand into the ocean to prepare the site.
Now the squid lay their eggs at the bottom of the ocean, and they need light for their eggs to hatch.
The layer of silt that’ll be created by the dumping of all that sand will affect the squid population, which is responsible for 35 percent of the market in South Africa.
What are our energy alternatives?
Solar and wind. People say: “Oh, but it’s not enough.” For the next 40 to 50 years South Africa will still depend on coal. Instead of investing in nuclear, the government should make more of an effort in renewable.
If we build more renewable energy now, we can have a responsible phase-out of coal so that, as power stations close, we will have enough renewable energy to meet our needs.
Germany recently collected 22 gigawatts of solar energy, the equivalent of 20 nuclear reactors. And Germany has very little sun compared to us. It’s not an impossibility.
If we do go nuclear, it’ll take at least 16 to 20 years before a power station is operational. So nuclear is not the answer to our short-term solutions. Importantly, we need to learn to be more energy efficient and save.
Greenpeace successes in South Africa?
In the short time we’ve been here (three years), we’ve come up with really good research documents around coal and nuclear that prove what we are saying.
So it’s not just about hanging from cranes and dumping coal at Eskom. In South Africa, we have also worked with other local NGOs to share experiences and to make all our campaigns stronger.
Are you making any progress?
The good thing is that there are other organisations working on it as well. But it can’t just be me and a handful of others; it has to be ordinary South Africans, too.
So it’s about getting that message out, which is the real challenge right now. I want to convince South Africans to avoid a repeat of the arms deal or e-tolling, where we end up with structures before we decide we don’t want them.
Even if people think nuclear technology is okay, there are important questions that need to be asked about the manner in which this process unfolds.
What can ordinary South Africans do?
We need to get our citizens to at least take part in online activism, SMS activism and to sign petitions. We need to be more vocal. We’ve seen it happen with fracking and e-tolling, so we know that it can be done. We have to get people on the street, protesting in any way they can.
As long as NGOs are considered to be crazy greenies, the government will just box us and put us to one side. We can’t do this on our own.
In Germany, what turned the government off nuclear was the hundreds of thousands of people who marched in the streets.
As South Africans, we need to be more in control of our lives to really become a democratic country that decides how its money will be spent.
Leadership in South Africa?
My worry is that we’ve turned basic leaders into demigods, and that’s just wrong.
I don’t think we have many good leaders in politics right now.
Leaders need to have vision and be able to take their ideas forward and inspire others. They need to listen and be willing to take risks. There’s also too much focus on what the leader should be doing, when change needs to come from the collective. Not one activist, but many.
I remain hopeful, though. You can’t be passionate about something and then not have hope that you’re on the right track.
* Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.