Liz McDaid of the nuclear victory

Triumphant anti-nuclear campaigner believes courage works wonders.

Battle-weary South Africans had cause for a rare moment of national jubilation when on 26 April the Western Cape High Court made its momentous ruling, effectively halting the country’s ridiculous nuclear power expansion programme.

The ruling, on the eve of Freedom Day in South Africa, also coincided with the anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. To top it all, it rained in drought-stressed Cape Town, and jubilant activists danced outside the court until they were drenched.

If upheld, the ruling will save the country trillions of rands. It represents arguably the biggest achievement by NGOs in decades. Two small NGOs, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (*SAFCEI), following two years of court preparation, finally managed to block the deal.

Anti-nuclear campaigner Liz McDaid

Among those dancing for joy was a fifty-something woman in jeans and a SAFCEI T-shirt. Liz McDaid, the leader of the anti-nuclear campaign by SAFCEI, played a key advisory role in the legal proceedings. She’s now known in NGO circles as “Liz McDaid of the nuclear victory”.

Speaking outside court on the day of the ruling, an ecstatic McDaid told the crowd the court case meant that the people of South Africa have to be consulted. “It is now time to stand up and demand to be counted. The thunder and rain are a signal from the heavens that justice has been done.”

McDaid has been involved in a number of environmental battles: she coordinated a multi-stakeholder team for an asbestos summit which eventually led to a total asbestos ban in 2008. She also helped fight the battle against the location of Saldanha Steel, and was one of those who pushed for a commission of inquiry into the fire in a chemical store belonging to AECI, initially killing two people and causing a “significant” deterioration in the health of “thousands” of others since then.

In an interview with Noseweek, McDaid casually mentioned that she was also involved in coordinating – and winning – the legal battle against the Pebble Bed Reactor. “But that was small beans compared to this nuclear thing,” she said. “As someone who has worked all my adult life for justice, this was a big one for me.”

Over a mug of tea at her home in Claremont, Cape Town, a few days after the judgment, McDaid, a single mother with a collection of dogs, was still processing the momentous win.

“To think that two small NGOs who didn’t even have proper operating budgets managed to pull this off. It has been fantastic, a real case of ‘power to the people’.

“This was not a legal battle between two fancy law firms. It was two small NGOs with a lot of supporters – including the Right To Know Campaign, the Green Anglicans, Catholic Justice and Peace, the Muslim Judicial Council and others acting alongside. Everyone started coming to the party to stand up and be counted as people realised what was at stake. That’s why everyone is so excited.”

For McDaid, the main success of the court action has been to raise awareness among South Africans about “what has been going on under everyone’s noses”.

The response to the judgment has been “overwhelmingly positive, congratulatory and appreciative… So many people have emailed and phoned to say, ‘thanks, you did it for all of us’. People were blown away.

“This outcome tells us democracy does work and people have a right to a say in our future, particularly around energy. All we have done is reset the system and now it’s up to all South African citizens to use their voices again and be active. It’s a wake-up call for everybody in South Africa.”

Ordinary South Africans, McDaid believes, are tired and apathetic…  and have “kind of given up”. “What with Nkandla, the Guptas, the late-night Cabinet reshuffle – they feel we are never going to win… This judgment gave people hope.”

For several years, McDaid has been a key participant in the Wednesday vigil outside Parliament to protest against the government’s planned nuclear deal. “We normally go to a little coffee shop in town after standing vigil… and on the day of the court case, the guy who runs the coffee shop said, ‘tomorrow after the vigil the coffee will be R10 for all protestors!’ Even he was excited.”

The ruling effectively set the procurement of nuclear right back to square one, ensuring that any deals with Russia, the US and South Korea are off.

Judge Lee Bozalek ruled that the secret tabling of the intergovernmental agreements with Russia, USA and Korea were unconstitutional, illegal and should be set aside and that the decisions made by former energy minister Tina Joemat- Pettersson (the so-called section 34 determinations) in 2013 and 2016 to procure 9,600 MW of nuclear power were unlawful and unconstitutional and should be set aside. Any existing requests for proposals from nuclear energy providers were also set aside.

The court also ruled that Eskom, as the procurer, was set aside and that there must be public participation as part of the procurement process before any new decisions are made.

McDaid, known as Liziwe to friends and colleagues, grew up in Cape Town, and studied Zoology at UCT. “I wanted to be an environmental somebody. I liked animals, but I am essentially a scientist,” she said.

At university McDaid had a physics lecturer “who ranted on about the wonders of nuclear but then he was also talking about Three Mile Island, the 1979 nuclear disaster in America and how human error and technical safety systems caused a partial meltdown which then led to improved regulations in the USA.

“I remember thinking, well that’s all very well, but nuclear sounds very dangerous, and I wonder if it is really necessary.”

McDaid completed a BSc, followed by a higher diploma in education through the University of South African (Unisa), before taking up a post as a teacher on the Cape Flats in the mid-1980s.

While teaching – and witnessing the conflicts between students and apartheid security forces – she became politically active.

“The apartheid government threw me out of teaching and I went to work at university,” said McDaid.

Earthlife Africa had been formed and she started becoming interested in environmental issues. She also became part of the group that formed the Environmental Justice Coalition, which focused on environmental justice.

After 1994, during the Mandela era, she was part of an advisory team to the ANC and later became a researcher in Parliament’s national research unit on environment and energy. “That was a time of such possibility and hope,” said McDaid. “The years from 1995 to 1997 were years of putting in place policies for the people of South Africa but after that it seemed to be all about economics that would favour the big guys. I didn’t like that attitude so I went back to civil society.”

Then the Pebble Bed bounced up and McDaid became the coordinator of Earthlife Africa in Cape Town. “I was part of the preparation for the legal case which tackled the Pebble Bed. It eventually went to court and Earthlife Africa won the court case.”

McDaid was involved in a range of environmental causes and worked as a researcher for a number of NGOs including the World Resources Institute, Oxfam and groundWork.

Much of her research and development work has focused on energy related policy analysis and on climate change. She is particularly committed to building the capacity of civil society and government.

Since 2009, she has co-ordinated SAFCEI’s Energy and Climate Change programme.

McDaid’s philosophy on life is “that the universe gives us strength and energy to do the right thing. Just simply, like, it is there, you just have to step out and take it, absorb it and work with it. My life works like that. In 1990, when we were trying to oppose Saldanha Steel because it was going to pollute the lagoon, lo and behold, on the day that it was necessary for something to happen, there was an oil spill, and we were able to prove that the oil would actually go into the lagoon because that was exactly what happened.”

McDaid’s argument against nuclear power is simple: “In my view, if you add up all the different sources of energy from an environmental perspective then nuclear has the terrible long-lived radioactive waste... the one with the biggest risk of disaster.

Anti-nuclear vigil outside Parliament in Cape Town

“The way we make decisions should be on the basis of real, comparative information and in the public interest. And what’s happening at the moment is not that. Misleading the public is what I don’t like. I think if we had an honest discussion about the merits of different power sources, we would easily come to what’s the best solution for South Africa.

“But when you get all these lobbyists who, it seems, are not interested in what is best for South Africa, but only in their own greedy paws, if they are prepared to spin stories just to get money, then you have to take it on.

“That’s why this court judgment is a major victory. Nuclear has never been about energy. It’s always been about power and corruption.”

For McDaid, who believes the Jacob Zuma presidency will go down as “the one fixated on nuclear”, is convinced there are “a lot of dots to join” in terms of alleged corruption and nepotism related to the deal.

She loves murder mystery novels, “as I like to try and put the pieces of the puzzle together” as well as Malcolm Gladwell books “which inform a theory of change”. A firm favourite is the book Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken, “about small groups of people who are changing the world”. Her heroes –  besides Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela “of course” – include people like Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who stand up against injustices. And KZN-based Reverend Sue Britton, “who has done amazing things as an anti-apartheid activist, church minister and environmental activist”.

“My other heroes are all people who speak out – and not just when it is popular to do so.”

A quote at the end of her email signature is one by Nelson Mandela: “You have a limited time to stay on earth. You must try and use that period to transform your country into what you desire it to be.”

McDaid warned: “What we have to look out for now is the media propaganda on nuclear. It’s already starting with the nonsensical thing of equating X-rays to nuclear power stations.

“How do you justify building 9.6 GW of nuclear power and then say it’s beneficial because people get X-rays. We must be aware of the media onslaught – a complete waste of public money – that will now try and bamboozle people into believing nuclear contracts are a good idea.”

What disturbs her most about life in South Africa today, apart from nuclear deals and environmental issues, is this: “There seems to be an orchestrated attempt to divide people… along any lines possible.

“There is a lot of stereotyping going on and it is used in a very divisive way. That’s the saddest thing. It results in people self-censoring. People don’t speak out because they don’t want to be labelled.

“When we first held our vigils outside Parliament people were scared to come, as they thought they’d be beaten by police. We told them they have a right to protest in South Africa.

“This ignorance of their rights is a very sad thing. So many people gave their lives for democracy in this country… and the current generation doesn’t seem to know how to use those rights. If they used those rights, then we wouldn’t be where we are. That’s the saddest thing for me.

“As someone once said, ‘in order for evil to flourish it is sufficient that the good do nothing’.”

*On Saturday 6 May, SAFCEI launched its Active Citizens Network, aimed at working towards a more compassionate and just world. See

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