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December 18, 2013

Reflecting on the Environmental Legacy of Nelson Mandela - Part 2

Cesia kearnsBy Cesia Kearns, Senior Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.

"This is not quite the vision Mandela had for the future of South Africa."

When I traveled to South Africa for the Sierra Club in the fall of 2010, I hoped to gain a better understanding of the lay of the land there on energy issues by meeting with some partner organizations to learn about their work fighting coal and creating access to clean energy in South Africa. We wanted to explore how - if at all - the Sierra Club could be an ally in their work around common goals of addressing climate change, protecting human health, and developing clean energy rather than coal.   

We had been working hard with U.S. communities to stop new coal-fired power plants from being built, and with great success – we have prevented the construction of more than 150 new coal-fired power plants. We were then embarking on a new phase of our work to transition out the existing U.S. coal fleet starting with the country's oldest and dirtiest plants.

Circumstances in South Africa created a new lens to our work on coal in the U.S. The World Bank and the U.S. Export - Import Bank would be using U.S. taxpayer dollars to help finance the construction of the Medupi power plant - a colossal power station intended to be 4,800 megawatts in the Limpopo Province of South Africa - the largest operating coal-fired power plant in the world.  

For some perspective, the largest coal plant in the U.S. is around 3,500 megawatts but most are more in the range of 400 to 500 megawatts. All of our work in the U.S. to stop proposed coal plants and to retire existing coal-fired power could be moot if we are funding projects like Medupi. But that’s just if we consider the amount of carbon pollution going into the atmosphere from coal. The Medupi power station is much bigger than an issue of climate change, and our dollars would be responsible for contributing to other problems. It is an example of the gross inequities and challenges that remain in post-apartheid South Africa.  

South Africa is a country that is building some of the largest power stations in the world through Eskom, the state-owned utility that was developing coal-to-liquid-petroleum as a solution to the fuel shortage because of the international sanctions against the apartheid government. It is one of the greatest exporters of coal to other countries for electricity production. Yet despite that, a quarter of the population does not have access to electricity, much less electricity from sources that don't poison people.

Medupi will have no modern but only paltry pollution controls, spewing mercury soot, and smog into an agricultural community. This power station is not going to provide access to electricity for people, it's going to power other large industry in the region that is not necessarily going to make the vast majority of South Africans increase their quality of life or solve poverty. Even if it were going to be available to families, it would likely be far too unaffordable, leaving many still in the shadow of wealthy white homes, businesses, and sparkling tourist attractions.  

This is not quite the vision Mandela had for the future of South Africa. Medupi is not necessarily contributing to creating long term jobs for local people either, much less ones that are safe and well paying in a country in which finding work is a central issue. The Medupi power station would be pulling water from a region that is an ecological wonder and already water scarce, affecting both subsistence and large scale farmers.  

The complexities of this power station and the myriad ways to trace historic and present tension are vast. However, at risk of oversimplifying, one aspect that is worth noting is that the situation with the resistance to building Medupi is also one in which we see some of the successes of post-apartheid South Africa. It’s a place where white Afrikaner farmers have been working with social and environmental justice groups like "groundWork" South Africa.

"groundWork" South Africa is an organization which primarily works on toxics issues affecting black South Africans, to challenge the South African government on Medupi and draw attention to the huge problems Medupi poses for their community and for the country as a whole. Their organizing successfully drew a World Bank Inspection panel to Medupi based on the lack of pollution controls and failure to address concerns around climate change. Despite U.S. and World Bank support for the project, its construction has been delayed and with shaky finances, it has become among the most expensive coal projects in the world. The project has been also been delayed in part also because union construction workers on the plant went on strike over pay.

Organizing in South Africa is alive and well. Traveling to see Medupi and talk with some of the community members and document what exactly U.S. taxpayer dollars are funding, and to find out what small piece of this puzzle we could help with was a reflective journey across hundreds of miles North of Johannesburg past farm fields, savannas, game reserves, and small communities of people trying to build a more sustainable future. I was traveling with a recent law school graduate who had interned with groundWork and who was gracious enough to go as my guide because a foreigner like me would been lost in a heartbeat trying to find my way to and through such a rural area.

Two young women - black South African, white American -marveling together at spotting giraffes and warthogs from the road, talking about the differences in our countries’ regulatory structures, talking about how racism manifests in our respective communities, talking about our favorite music, and wondering what more can be done to address the problems we both care about. I couldn't help wondering what our conversation would have been like if we were around 40 years ago, and if Mandela and other South African leaders had not changed the course of history, if the two of us would have even ever had the opportunity to meet. It also impressed upon me the great responsibility we have to continue to unravel the problems that exist as vestiges of apartheid.  

We must honor the work of those before us with a renewed commitment to carry that work forward and address the suffering and inequity that keeps us apart. It's the best respect we can pay to Mandela.

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