A farmer evacuated from her home near a Japanese nuclear power plant visited Soweto Wednesday to talk to impoverished South Africans about how the poor are worst hit by catastrophes like the one triggered by an earthquake in her homeland.
Anti-nuclear activists from Greenpeace, which is trying to spark a grass-roots anti-nuclear movement here, brought Ayako Oga to South Africa. The country has Africa's only nuclear energy plant and plans to build more.
Oga said she fled her home some 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Fukushima plant on March 11, the day a massive earthquake hit Japan. A power pylon toppled, cutting electricity to the cooling system at Fukushima. The roof of one reactor was blown off by a hydrogen explosion.
Poor people who were evacuated to escape leaking radiation have found it hard to get jobs elsewhere in Japan, Oga said. She added the rich are able to afford food that is guaranteed not to have been contaminated by radiation, and have better access to information about how to stay safe.
In an interview before addressing about two dozen people in the auditorium of a community college, Oga said she understood that Soweto, a neighborhood to which blacks were restricted under apartheid, was largely poor and beset by lack of jobs and housing and AIDS and other health issues. She said its residents needed to add nuclear energy to their already long list of concerns, because "they will be the ones that will suffer the most when they face a catastrophic accident."
Greenpeace is calling on South Africa to "abandon its nuclear expansion plans in favor of a strong push to energy efficiency and renewable power." But the government has reiterated its commitment to building more reactors in the face of a growing energy crisis.
Many in Oga's audience were from community groups more accustomed to brainstorming ways to find homes or jobs, or to help people who could not afford to pay their electricity or water bills. A Zulu translator at first stumbled over whether her home town was Hiroshima or Fukushima.
Her listeners were nonetheless engaged as Oga spoke of expecting that it would never be safe to return in her lifetime to her home, and of her longing to farm again. Oga said friends and neighbors have scattered. Across Japan, she said, children are kept inside for fear playing outside will expose them to radiation, and people constantly monitor radiation levels.
"The use of atomic power always goes hand in hand with the threat of nuclear contamination," she said, appealing to Sowetans to help "prevent this from happening again, anywhere in the world."
After a speech and answering questions, Oga, who said she had spoken out against what she saw as the dangers of nuclear energy even before the quake, rose to sing an anti-nuclear song from her high school days. It spoke of a beloved landscape ruined by radiation.
Virginia Setshedi, a Soweto rights activist, was moved to rise to thank Oga, and then turned to the rest of the audience.
"The things that you take for granted, my comrades, the flowers, the grass, the trees, other people can no longer enjoy," Setshedi said. "So I think it's important for us to enjoy them, to protect them."