This year, Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid of South Africa bagged the Goldman Environment Prize for challenging a South African plan to buy up to 10 nuclear power stations from Russia. Following a five-year lawsuit, a high court outlawed the deal last April after finding that the plan had been arranged without proper consultation from the Parliament.
South Africa’s former president, Jacob Zuma, had signed an agreement with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in 2014, which was estimated at $76 billion. The plan was met with criticism and protests even then, as the then-Finance Minister insisted that South Africa did not have the financial resources to go through with the deal.
The high court ruling, hailed as a landmark, also implies that all future nuclear deals will have to be first passed in Parliament and opened to the public. The court also nullified other nuclear power deals signed by South Africa with the US and South Korea.
Lekalakala and McDaid are no strangers to citizen activism, and they were active during the anti-apartheid struggle of South Africa.
McDaid was a teacher in the 1980s, and she helped students during the Trojan Horse massacre in Athlone, Cape Town. Lekalakala, on the other hand, grew up in the heart of the black consciousness movement, often woken up by screams and finding bodies in the nights.
For two years, they organized public protests, brought environmental lobbyists to their campaigns and mobilized a strong force of mostly women for the cause. They were glad to find Adrian Pole, who decided to work for their case pro-bono and fought against the government’s attempt to wear the case out by stalling it.
“We are getting this [Goldman] prize because we really sacrificed ourselves by putting our names on the line," said Lekalakala, “But we’ve been through so much that we were willing to take the risk."
Both women were warned that they could face violence and attacks on their reputation, but they chose to go ahead with their legal battle and signed their names on the paperwork.
McDaid feels that the success of the campaign is a positive sign for efforts at the grassroots level, and proved that citizens do have the power to hold their government accountable. Both are also proud to point out that the movement was led by women.
The new government has shown signs of moving in a different direction by dismissing the nuclear deals and instead focusing on improving wind and solar energy in the country. Lekalakala and McDaid agree that these are good signs, but citizens need to remain vigilant.
They hope to use the Goldman award to “further our struggle and build a new generation of activists."
Today, McDaid works for the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, while Lekalakala belongs to the Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, and their previous experiences had prepared them to take on not just their country’s government, but also the Russian government.