Celebrating the Unbowed ‘Crazy Woman’

Njoki Wamai, Kenya, MaathaiBy Njoki Wamai

Wangari Maathai was always there with us in our house in Kenya when I was growing up. She was there on our television screens, in the morning news on the radio before we went to school and in animated yet hushed conversations about her courage between my parents and their visitors in our living room during the troubled mid-90s. The strong dark woman in African prints and braided hair speaking truth to power when no one dared question the then dictator President Daniel Arap Moi.

She was there even after Moi called her the crazy woman with insects in her head and sycophants in parliament chorused calling her a badly behaved woman and a divorcee who was a threat to Kenya’s national security.

She was there in press interviews and run-ins with the Moi governments hired goons after graciously kneeling to plant a tree.

She was there, at home with grandmothers in villages urging them to plant more trees, as she was dining with world leaders in exclusive locations explaining complex concepts of why they urgently need to address climate change.

The grey Monday morning she left us on September 25, 2011 signified the mood that enveloped me and indeed Kenya and the world as we came to terms with the loss of yet another great non-conformist. Her courage to turn her back on old formulas while inventing the future had left an indelible mark in Kenya and the world we live in. Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary President of Burkina Faso once said that,

“You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. […] We must dare to invent the future.”

Wangari was labelled a mad woman but because of her madness she reinvented our collective future albeit in her small way.

Wangari Maathai, feminism, politics, kenya
Picture supplied by the author

In her memoir Unbowed, she reveals the difficult choices she made in her personal life in a conservative Kenya after she went through a painful divorce where she was labelled by her ex-husband as a ‘too strong-minded a woman who was not easy to control’. By Wangari’s refusing to conform as a ‘well-behaved woman’ in her private space she made history and expanded the public space for women at a national and international level in various spaces such as the private space, the academy, in politics and most importantly the ecological space which she was later feted for as a Nobel Laurent. As a feminist, she exemplified the personal is political mantra from her days in the National Council of Women of Kenya, as a founder of the Green Belt Movement when she publicly initiated a campaign that supported another trail blazing Kenyan woman Wambui Otieno whose legendary case to bury her husband SM. Otieno advanced women’s rights. Many ‘well behaved women’ who were beneficiaries of the patrimonial politics of Moi’s leadership refused to support Wangari as she fought for the rights of another ‘crazy’ woman( Wambui Otieno who fought for widows rights to bury their husbands) and for a younger generation of Kenyan women who now enjoy these rights.

These instances of madness and non-conformity have led to several legacies she left us on environment, women’s emancipation and politics. On the environment, her madness finally bore fruit when she recovered and secured our public spaces such as Uhuru park, Karura forest and more recently our water towers: the Aberdare and the Mau complex from land grabbers and corrupt politicians. Internationally, as the co-chair of the Congo-Basin fund she tirelessly campaigned to save the African water tower.

In conclusion, the most notable constant that enabled Wangari to soldier on despite adversity and insulting labels such as ‘mad woman’ is her love for the environment.

“A true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” Che Guevara.

We miss you Wangari.


Female State of the Nation: Part 3: Energy and the Environment

Jen Thorpe, feminism, South Africa, feminist
Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

Read Part 1 – ‘Where are we’ here, and Part 2 ‘Women and the economy’ here

It seems important that I’m sitting in my living room in the dark during load-shedding trying to finish this portion of the SONA analysis on the environment and energy. It couldn’t be much clearer to me that the decisions that the State makes about how we produce and distribute our energy impact on women, particularly those that are already facing other challenges such as poverty.

What does it mean for women when the lights go out, or to have never been connected to electricity in the first place?

In public, it means dark streets, intersections, public transport routes, and footpaths. Any woman reading this does not need any further detail about the sense that this darkness is inherently dangerous, and limits women’s ability to enjoy their Constitutional right to move freely, and to be free from violence. Part four of this series will deal with crime and human rights, and so I will not belabor the point further in this section.

As noted earlier in this series of posts, the NDP makes clear that access to basic services and human rights such as safe drinking water, electricity, and quality childhood education could “free women from doing unpaid work and help them seek jobs.” As already discussed in the section on women and the economy, women’s economic empowerment is critical to the development and well being of the entire family.

Across South Africa, around a third of households do not have access to electricity. When there is load shedding or no electricity, households must use alternative energy sources to prepare food and heat water. As of 2011, according to the census, only 26 percent of households in informal settlements used electricity as their main form of energy for heating, 39 percent used electricity for cooking, and 43 percent used electricity for lighting. In 2011, 57 percent of all households classified as “informal dwellings” (shacks not in backyards) had no access to electricity at all.

According to the 2010 survey of time use, women were twice as likely as men to spend time on food preparation and where electricity is not available, this is likely to take much longer, placing further domestic strain on women. In addition, a Housing Development Agency Report noted that female-headed households in informal settlements are more likely to be overcrowded and house skip generation families, as well as non-family residents, creating an even more extensive burden on these women.

There are multiple risks of using these alternative sources of energy to cook and heat the home. A 2009 World Health Organisation bulletin noted that because paraffin is highly flammable, this can lead to fires either from malfunctioning appliances, placing appliances too close to curtains, or accidents. In addition, the use of paraffin in wooden or cardboard structures, as well as in population dense areas means the risk of fire is further escalated

The energy crisis in South Africa is at the forefront of many of our minds because of the inability to flick a switch and turn on a light. What may seem a more distant issue is the impact of our energy decisions on women in the long term. I think it’s important then to explore what climate change means for women, and how South Africa’s current energy decisions are likely to increase our contribution to climate change and are already affecting the health of many South Africans.

It is well documented that in times of environmental crisis women are often hardest hit. This has been recognized by women’s organisations and institutions for many years: Women and the Environment was one of the 12 areas of critical concern acknowledged in the Beijing Platform for Action developed in 1995. The document states that:

“Awareness of resource depletion, the degradation of natural systems and the dangers of polluting substances has increased markedly in the past decade. These worsening conditions are destroying fragile ecosystems and displacing communities, especially women, from productive activities and are an increasing threat to a safe and healthy environment.”

In South African policy this has also been acknowledged. The NDP notes that climate change will have a negative effect on the health of communities, and that this will disproportionately impact women and children.[1]

It was positive that the 2014 State of the Nation speech called for

” a radical transformation of the energy sector, to develop a sustainable energy mix that comprises coal, solar, wind, hydro, gas and nuclear energy.”

And yet, simultaneously there continued to be investment in coal power at the expense of our renewable electricity infrastructure, and at the expense of the health and livelihoods of many South Africans, many of whom are women.

The impact of these decisions on the health of the population is not something that will only happen in the future. It is already happening. The environmental impact is not only a long term, but current. Witbank in Mpumalanga has the world’s dirtiest air. In The Poisoned People Greenpeace Africa details the stories of the people who live around coal mines, many of whom who are already suffering from respiratory problems as well as other health conditions.

There continues to be this push for coal despite the fact that it already results in hundreds of deaths per year as a result of air pollution, and this could increase when (if) Medupi comes online. This could be as high a figure as 20 000 premature deaths. Eskom has consistently exceeded air quality limits on pollution, and yet in 2014 applied for the right not to comply with Minimum Emission Standards. There continues to be this push for coal despite it becoming a massive financial burden for the State, and it being well over budget. Eskom continues to get State bail outs that could be invested in renewable energy which is labour intensive, will reduce South Africa’s contribution to climate change, and will not have the same devastating health impact that coal is having. It is important then, to listen to SONA tomorrow to consider whether

The decision to continue to invest in environmentally damaging energy production methods such as fracking, rather than redirect investment towards greener energy will impact on women. Other than the aesthetic destruction of environments, fracking is an incredibly water intense activity. Even if the well-documented risks of groundwater pollution do not happen in South Africa, we are a water scarce country. Where water is not readily available, or in times of drought, again the impact on women’s domestic responsibilities is significant.

In addition, around 16 000 women are involved in the formal agricultural sector[i], and many more are involved in informal agriculture in order to meet the food security needs of their families. Women already face additional obstacles to becoming involved in agriculture (such as access to technology and finance), and climate change will only heighten these challenges. Thus, a drought or an impact on the ground water because of pollution will have a profound impact on women in terms of job losses, and food insecurity. This is already happening in countries bordering and near to South Africa.

Our future energy decisions, proposed and discussed in the State of the Nation, will continue have a profound impact on women. As you listen to the speech tomorrow, consider how the decisions about energy and the environment could impact on women.

If women are not mentioned at all in this regard, as has frequently been the case, it is likely that their interests will not be considered. It is clear that any further decisions about our energy future should be made only with specific consultation with women’s interest groups, in order to ensure that our energy and environmental policies are gender-sensitive, and in line with the Constitution which provides every South African with the right to have an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing, and to have it protected for future generations to come.

[1] NDP

[2] South African Institute of Race Relations (2013). Page 252, 253

Jen Thorpe

Obama, women, and hope

Jen Thorpe
Jen ThorpejEN 

There I sat, five hours after leaving home, sunburned and wind chapped. I was hungry and thirsty and had spoken about engineering and women’s rights and weddings and which city in South Africa was the best. I had travelled thousands of kilometers the day before, and despite the anticipated excitement, at that moment I just wanted to get back to the love of my life who was sharing nine of our fourty hours together this month with this event. But, as it is when your heart and imagination are so desperate for a political leader that can inspire, as soon as Barack Obama walked in I was in awe. I felt hope.

He is a man that walks onto the stage with confidence, and at the same time seems to invite you to challenge him. His body language says ‘I’m doing a great job, but dare me to do better and I’ll accept the challenge’. He is a leader that speaks with such obvious love and affection for his family that it is heartwarming. He makes you imagine dinner conversations around the table that are heated and passionate and aimed at making a better man and president out of him. He has the privilege of being surrounded by three strong women before he has even left the house.

He spoke with compassion and kindness of Mandela, with pride in the economy in America (he is obviously a big Apple fan), with honesty about ending wars and the damaging impact of colonialism. The questions people asked gave him the opportunity to appear as though he had things under control. I was glad that the last question focused on something a bit more difficult – the US environmental policy. 

We know that the US has a poor track record environmentally – a perfect example of how legislation protecting the environment is not nearly as good as not polluting it in the first place. Recently Obama has changed his tune, saying that he’d stop dangerous and environmentally disastrous projects like the Keystone pipeline if they showed that the environmental impact would be negative. 

In South Africa, the Constitution provides the right for all of us to live in an environment that is not bad for our health. Yet we see so often that environmental impact assessments just make sure that companies meet the bare minimum rather than actively going out of their way to protect the land and environment that belongs to all of us. I hope that when President Obama evaluates the impact of Keystone on the environment, he does so in broad strokes, not in a narrowly defined minimum norms and standards type of way. I think the question should be simple – will the innately valuable biodiversity, beauty, and sanctity of the land be improved by Keystone? As someone who grew up in Hawaai, I know he knows the answer to this question in his heart.

As a feminist South African, I know that the environment I live in affects women’s lives most tangibly. I know that in times of scarcity violence against women increases. I know that times of scarcity will surely follow if we do not address climate change (something Obama readily admits is the biggest environmental challenge we have ever faced in history). I have hope that Obama will begin to lead the world in making the right decisions about the environment – I hope too that the South African government will also evaluate the real impact on its people of treating the planet as something expendable in the path to economic growth.  

If I had been given the chance I would have asked something even more closer to home. I wanted to ask how as President, he would ensure that the rollback of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights in the USA came to a stop so that when Malia and Sasha are grown up, they will know that they have a right to make decisions about their own sexuality and sexual health. But this question of course impacts many women around the world who are dependent on US aid in order to access these rights in their own countries. If the anti-abortion movement in the US gains strength, how will it affect the conditions of our own sexual rights? 

We all know that abstinence only programs are a slap in the face to many women who cannot negotiate safe sexual interactions because of a patriarchal system that says that men have a right to have sex, or because they face physical and sexual violence when they refuse a partner’s sexual advances. We know that most men who will ever go on to rape do so for the first time in their teens, and that as much as 30% of all girls at school have already been the victim of sexual violence.  We know that early pregnancy has a profound impact on young girls lives – they are less likely to continue schooling, more likely to be stigmatised by the education system than supported by it, less likely to complete schooling and further qualifications that can allow them to succeed, escape poverty, or exit violent relationships. Nobody is advocating for abortion as contraception – what feminists and sexual and reproductive health rights activists are saying is that women are best placed to gage their readiness and ability to raise a child, and that they deserve the right to make decisions about their own bodies. How then does he feel about the restriction of women’s rights to abortion and sexual health services?  How does he feel knowing that when he leaves office, Sasha and Malia may have fewer sexual rights than when he went in?

I don’t doubt that Obama is a good man – perhaps that’s naive, but he is a man that inspires hope. I believe that he wants the best for his daughters – that he feels delighted that they are strong willed. I believe that he would never want them to have no access to decision making power over their own bodies. I believe that he is aware that women’s right and need to access sexual and reproductive health rights is something that makes democracy stronger. I hope that when or if he gets the chance to make decisions about how best to consider these rights, he makes the decision to advance them rather than restrict them. Because, President Obama, it is your responsibility as a father and a leader to make sure women are supported.

I may never get the opportunity to ask that question, but I hope that it is one that he has asked himself.

Tam Sutherns

Saving the Rhinos

Tammy Sutherns
Tammy Sutherns

By Tammy Sutherns

We are bombarded with the statistics of rhino poaching on a daily basis. The numbers and the stories are so horrific that for many of us, we have become completely desensitized. Another rhino death, another day.

Which is why when I met up with the lovely South African actress Michelle Bradshaw recently and spent the better half of an hour listening to her passionate plea on behalf of Africa Conservation Trust, I was moved. There are people out there, like Michelle, who still care.

Africa Conservation Trust, a major role player in the quest to stop rhino poaching, led to a 2012 initiative called Skydive for Rhinos. This was the brainchild of Sheelagh Antrobus from Africa Conservation Trust and Michelle became an ambassador for the cause. This forms part of Project Rhino KZN, a collaboration of 14 other leading conservation agencies, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and private game reserves. Together they raise funds in a transparent way to put an end to rhino poaching.

“I find it a travesty that a creature that has roamed the earth for 150 million years, that is an umbrella species, that protects so many species, that plays a role in the environment and the ecosystem, and is so magnificent is becoming extinct,” Michelle said to me. “They are wild and how dare human avarice destroy a beast of this nature.”

In an often apathetic society, to hear such a concerned and emotional outcry is not only refreshing, it’s needed.

Michelle’s plea is simple. The team has opened an SMS line where every SMS sent costs R10 and R6 goes straight to Africa Conservation Trust for the rhinos. The funds go towards specialist training, aerial surveillance, the training and education of the community and specialised resources.

What she reminds us all is that to be a part of this planet, one must respect and care for every single species that it is made up of. The rhinos need our help and all it takes is an SMS.

When the war against rhino poaching is won, will you have played a role?

SMS ‘Rhino’ to 38008.


Why I don’t want any more nuclear energy in South Africa

Jen Thorpe participating in the Greenpeace Africa anti-nuclear activity in Cape Town, Monday 5 March 2012.

By Jen Thorpe

It is nearly one year since the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan caused a nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. As a result of this meltdown, a 30km evacuation zone was triggered and 150 000 people within that radius have since had to leave their homes, and sometimes their pets, behind. They will not be able to return in their lifetimes. To get some idea of what a town without people looks like, you can check out Greenpeace Africa’s exhibition online, or Jan Smith’s photographs which are being exhibited in Cape Town this week.

Less than a week after this disaster the South African government committed to building six new nuclear reactors in South Africa. This was not only completely tactless and callous, it was also the most expensive and dangerous option to choose.

Greenpeace Africa is currently campaigning for the South African government to stop its plans for six new nuclear reactors. They argue that “reliable renewable energy is abundant, more affordable, and much safer” and that “nuclear power is inherently unsafe and totally unnecessary”. They have produced an excellent report titled ‘Lessons from Fukushima” which is well worth reading.

Why am I opposed to nulcear?

1. Nuclear is incredibly expensive. Government’s starting costs are estimated at R1 Trillion, and those are just the starting costs. Many reactors take a long time to build and have lengthly delays. Some take many decades to build. Because nuclear stations take time to build, they will not delivery our energy needs as a country now. When government tells you that it will, they are simply not telling the truth. We are already making costly mistakes investing in coal, and the risks of corruption involved in such a huge tender/budget are simply depressing to think about.

2. Nuclear power is not a solution to climate change. Why? Because there is only so much capacity to build nuclear. For example, Greenpeace argues that “even if we quadrupled the number of nuclear reactors in the world, it would only result in a 6% reduction in global CO2 emissions by 2020.

Image showing radiation moving out from the site of the nuclear meltdown from http://sustainabletransition.blogspot.com/2011/05/radiation-map-near-fukushima.html

3. The waste is incredibly dangerous as is evidenced by the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. At present South Africa has the only nuclear power station in Africa, and it’s situated in Koeberg which is less than 30km outside of Cape Town. In Fukushima, the radiation from nuclear meltdown did not disperse in neat concentric circles, and in Cape Town’s windy environment it will also be irregular.

The emergency action plan for this station can be read here, and it concerns me that they took two years to provide this plan to the Koeberg Alert Alliance. In Fukushima, ordinary response services had not been trained to deal with a nuclear meltdown and many of them had to expose themselves to high levels of radiation in order to assist others. What would happen in Cape Town?

At present the low-level waste from Koeberg is being buried in Vaalputs, despite the community having no input in this decision.

All high-level waste is buried at Koeberg itself. According to the Koeberg Alert Alliance site “Koeberg produces about 30 tons of high level waste per year, and all of it is currently stored at Koeberg – over 1000 tons.  If not stored properly, The waste can melt, and also ‘go critical’, which would result in  a nuclear explosion.” Government does not have a plan to dispose of the waste safely after the five year safe storage time. Now they plan to extend it to forty years.

The government’s choice to go with nuclear is not in the best interests of the South African public, and it will be poor people who are most severely affected if there is a nuclear meltdown at Koeberg.

4. There are better, safer, and cleaner alternatives that will create as many jobs. Over the last five years 35-times more renewable energy was installed than nuclear power. South Africa has ample wind and solar power capacity.

If we increased our energy efficiency measures by pursuing renewables, we wouldn’t need nuclear. We should be asking government to use the sun and the wind more, not accepting lazy and dangerous alternatives.

According to Greenpeace Africa “148 000 sustainable jobs would be created by implementing a just transition to renewable energy through Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution scenario in South Africa.” For some cool facts about renewables, click here.

I believe that we don’t need more nuclear power in South Africa and that there are better options out there to ensure that we have energy in the future. I hope that you’ll follow the debate and get involved when it comes time to stop this unnecessary construction.