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Prize Winners Today: How Makoma Lekalakala is Shaping South Africa’s Clean Energy Transition

October 4, 2022

Meeting Environmental Justice Leader, Makoma Lekalakala

Dressed in vibrant colors and a traditional VhaVenda headscarf, Makoma Lekalakala is a striking figure, even on a pixelated computer screen. It was nighttime in South Africa; Makoma joined our call having recently flown into Durban. “I go where the people are,” she shared. Sometimes that means Johannesburg, sometimes Limpopo, and this week, that means Durban—the site of a Presidential Climate Commission meeting.

Despite her stature in the environmental community and the long list of titles she has accrued to date (director, commissioner, and awardee, to name a few), Makoma insists that at her core she is still just a coordinator. More specifically, she is a coordinator of people, for people. “I call myself a social and environmental justice advocate,” she shared, “because I believe our environmental struggles are linked to our social struggles.” Warm, resolute, and fueled by a strong passion for social justice, Makoma is absolutely dedicated to improving the lives of South Africans through a just energy transition.

Makoma Lekalakala at the Johannesburg Zoo Lake (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Activism Rooted in the Anti-Apartheid Movement

Makoma was raised in an atmosphere of activism. She grew up in Soweto, South Africa’s largest Black township, located near Johannesburg. In 1976, Soweto was the site of famous student protests that helped catalyze global condemnation of the apartheid regime and its eventual demise. Those protests made a huge impression on Makoma as a budding activist. “I lived through my formational teen and adult years at the height of fighting apartheid. That molded me to be what I am,” she reflected.

Makoma is the director of Earthlife Africa, a grassroots organization with the mission of mobilizing civil society to advocate for the environment. She educates local communities on the causes and effects of climate change and brings their voices to the table. Makoma feels that she is carrying the baton passed down to her by the students in Soweto decades ago. “What keeps me going,” she shared, “are the people who have sacrificed their lives. They died challenging an unjust system—we can’t just say they died for nothing.”

Earthlife Africa is currently challenging the creation of the Musina Makhado Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in South Africa’s Limpopo region. Billed as the ticket to “economic diversification,” the proposed project includes 14 metal processing plants and a coal-fired power station. The site is home to majority Black subsistence farmers. It is rich in biodiversity, and also flush with cultural ties. “When the environmental impact assessments are made, the data is all quantifiable. But you can’t quantify people’s spirituality and way of life—it’s embedded,” Makoma noted.

As of September 2022, Earthlife Africa’s appeal to halt construction of the New Special Economic Zone was denied. The organization continues to push back legally and submitted a formal complaint with the UNDP Social and Environmental Compliance Unit.

Makoma Lekalakala and her colleague in the Earthlife Africa office in Johannesburg (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

A Voice for South Africa’s Voiceless

When Makoma won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018 alongside Liz McDaid, it helped raise her profile, increase the stature of Earthlife Africa, and amplify Makoma’s message of climate justice. She found herself in rooms she had never dreamed of, talking to people she couldn’t have imagined.

Today, Makoma sits on South Africa’s first-ever Presidential Climate Commission (fellow Goldman Prize winner Bobby Peek is also a member). Established by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2020, the commission advises the federal government on best practices to move from a carbon intensive economy to low carbon economy. As the largest greenhouse gas emitter in Africa and 13th largest emitter globally, South Africa now has the opportunity to set a new, more sustainable course and establish itself as a climate leader on the continent. It’s a long road ahead to reach the goal of net zero emissions by 2050: 80% of South Africa’s energy supply is currently powered by coal.

The landscape of East Rand, Johannesburg (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

COP27: Where Hopes Meets Reality

“COP27?” Makoma paused and crossed her arms. “It’s held in Africa, but don’t be confused—it’s not an African COP.” Makoma is referring to the upcoming Conference of Parties (COP27), held in Egypt November 7 – 18. The international climate conference has been both heralded and criticized by African activists. Some see it as opportunity to raise the continent’s profile, but many activists, like Makoma, believe it’s unlikely to improve the livelihoods of Africans. “African countries don’t have the upper hand,” she stated flatly.

Makoma’s hope is that Western countries hold true to their climate commitments, particularly nations that have recently experienced extreme weather events firsthand, such as Germany’s catastrophic floods and the UK’s unprecedent heatwave. Most importantly, she hopes to see compensation for disproportionate climate-borne damages suffered by African nations, which are responsible for only 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“You Have Questions, You Have Courage”

When asked to share any parting words, Makoma was ready for the draw. “It’s my favorite saying,” she shared, “although I’m not sure who said it.”

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,” Makoma quoted. It’s a quote that captures her ethos and she uses it often. Frequently approached by community organizations feeling restricted by lack of funds and connections, Makoma reminds them to focus on their assets and abilities instead. “I tell them, ‘You have questions, you have courage, and that’s what we’re going to use to do what we can,’” she shared.

We informed Makoma the quote was widely attributed to US President Theodore Roosevelt, and she erupted into peals of laughter. “I would have thought it was the Dalai Lama!” Dalai Lama or no, we ended our conversation confident in Makoma and her goal: to ensure that, in South Africa’s clean energy future, no one is left behind.

Visit Earthlife Africa’s website to learn how you can support Makoma’s work. Follow Earthlife Africa on Facebook and Twitter for updates.

This blog post is part of the Prize Winners Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?

About the author

Ellen Lomonico

Digital Communications Manager

Ellen is excited to elevate the stories and amplify the impact of Goldman Prize recipients around the globe. She manages the Prize’s digital presence, produces written and visual content, and contributes to strategic communications planning. Prior to joining the Prize, Ellen held various roles in the solar industry, from marketing to education program management. She holds a BA in Geography and Environmental Studies, with minors in Spanish and Environmental Systems and Society from the University of California, Los Angeles. She joined the Prize in 2020.

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