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Jobs or clean energy: is it better to go nuclear or to melt down?

The Mail & Guardian recently published the stories of two vastly different women whose only common ground was that they were black and unemployed. The report told how black women are in the most vulnerable category when it comes to unemployment, and that an astonishing 41% of black South African women are jobless.

Combine that with a Human Sciences Research Council survey that finds more than 40% of South African mothers are single parents.

Then add the findings of The Borgen Project (a nonprofit that addresses poverty and hunger and works towards ending them); that half South African children grow up in fatherless households.

Most single mothers in the world

Did you know that South Africa has the largest number of single mothers – in the world? And many of them, a sizeable portion being grandmothers caring for children in rural environments, rely on an unlivable R350 a month, the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) grant.

Sassa reinforces this tale of woe in its latest statistics, that the number of social grant beneficiaries swelled fivefold, from around 45 000 in 2018 to an astonishing 250 000 in 2020.

Not that unemployed adult women count among this number. As human rights organisation Black Sash points out, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Covid extension on payments leaves them out, forcing them to live on the child support grant they receive.

The figures left me grappling with the enormity of it all. The M&G’s joblessness story had me trying to imagine the hopelessness and despair of women who have to provide food, clothing and shelter for children with pitifully small amounts of money.

In 2015, I was retrenched from a newspaper job I’d had and loved for 34 years.

A period of mourning ensued for an ending that came too soon – a decade too soon, in my case. But the overriding emotion was fear. Having a glorious career come to a crashing and unanticipated end meant that, for the first time in my life, I was unemployed. Terror reigned. Interrupted sleep, waking at the 3am witching hour with cold dread clutching at your heart affects many, but especially the unemployed. These are not imagined fears. This is stress induced by the helplessness of knowing there is no money coming in, and when month-end no longer means a pay cheque, the distress is relentless. 

Looking back on it, I’m a little ashamed to even put myself into the category of the unemployed women written about in the M&G. Middle-class me had a mortgage to borrow from, a pension fund, and enough skill to ensure that I could earn a modest living — well, modest when compared to the professional executive position I’d held.

Where do we place our attention when so much in the world needs our attention?

How to create jobs while being mindful of climate change is the conundrum. It is top of mind, for middle-class people like me, that we need to save the planet at any cost.

But is that really true? Can we afford to save the planet and not its — our — people?

On the table for discussion right now is the question of whether or not to allow a nuclear power plant to be built in the Eastern Cape.

Public hearings took place in August in the province, in the picturesque town St Francis Bay. Also known as “little Venice”, St Francis Bay is built on waterways with stark white cottages topped with thatched roofs.

It’s beautiful in a Disney, cookie-cutter way, resplendent with boats moored at wooden docks; most houses boasting a swimming pool on Irish green lawns.

Public hearings also took place in Jeffreys Bay — less visually appealing, rougher and more windswept, renowned as the home of surfing hippies. 

At these hearings, local residents and environmental activists made it clear that they were not going to put up with an Eskom application for a nuclear installation at Thyspunt — a mere 11km from St Francis Bay and 42km from Jeffreys Bay.

It was mandatory for the National Nuclear Regulator to allow residents to voice their protest.

And they did. After all, there was to be a nuclear power plant in their backyard.

Here’s a confession: I was sent an online petition that read “Say no to nuclear plans” and I signed it. Indignantly. How dare they consider destroying such exquisite terrain? How dare they place the lives of so many in such potential danger?

When I was working on newspapers in Gqeberha, Oyster Bay, Cape St Francis and Jeffreys were glorious nearby weekend getaway destinations.

Dolphins abound along that coastline and it is not easy to resist an exotic display of dolphin dancing.

I huffed along with one of my oldest friends who lives in the area, and who — understandably — is enraged that this would even be a possibility in the area she’s chosen to retire to.

There was one emotional plea at the hearings: a climate justice activist, Ulrich Steenkamp, asked Eskom to stay away from the heritage site that is people’s graves.

He was referring to the sand dunes, poetically describing the way they are moved by the wind, carrying with them artefacts and burial remains of Khoe and San people.

Objections included valid points such as a boom in construction jobs that would hurt tourism and agriculture.

And there were fears about the radiation fallout and nuclear plant accidents. Who can forget the world’s scariest nuclear accidents, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011?

We would all prefer renewable energy options. They make more sense. Still, reading the M&G story of the two women, who add to the figure of 41% (almost half!) of unemployed black women, made me wonder. Coupled with the official 2021 unemployment rate of 32.6%, it is clear that we urgently need to create jobs.

At the same time, it is our duty to save the planet. Everyone I know is deep into recycling, cutting down on waste and, at the very least, thinking of ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

But it’s a fact that load-shedding slows the economy and, particularly during the pandemic, causes job-shedding.

We need quick solutions to our power problems.

The question is whether we allow Eskom (a power utility that has failed us) to use whatever means possible to get the country back on the grid so that industry can get going, so more jobs can be created.

We are told that nuclear is a zero-emission, clean energy source, generating power through fission. No harmful byproducts are emitted, unlike coal.

Still, the very mention of the word “nuclear” fills most right-thinking people with dread. People have been vehemently demonstrating against the introduction of nuclear power since the 1960s.

Those who would build these power plants argue that they are safe(ish) and provide clean energy, making them environmentally friendly and therefore good for the planet.

Countering this, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, a German political foundation affiliated with the German Green Party, put together a compelling research document outlining seven reasons why nuclear energy is not the answer to solve climate change. Among these are that it costs more than renewable wind power, takes nearly two decades between planning and operation and produces 23 times the emissions per unit of electricity it generates.

Then there are risks and costs associated with meltdown, cancers, waste risks, and weapons proliferation, all of which can easily be avoided by clean, renewable energy.

Yes, we need to create jobs, and yes, a constant and reliable power supply is essential.

But, as the activists speaking up at the Eastern Cape public hearings insist, Eskom should looking instead at sustainable renewable energy solutions.

The only thing that I am convinced about is that we need to make a plan to get those 

jobless women back to work. And quickly.

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