Two local environmental activists have received the world's most prestigious environmental prize for blowing the lid off the government's "secret and corrupt" nuclear energy deal in what has been described as a David versus Goliath battle.
Liz McDaid, of the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Insititute (SAFCEI), and Makoma Lekalakala, the director of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize on Monday, for their "tireless" work in exposing the state's unlawful R1 trillion nuclear energy deal with Russia.
The Goldman Prize is awarded every year to six individuals spanning six continents for their grassroots environmental activism - this year, for the first time, five of the six winners are female.
After obtaining the secret agreement between SA and Russia in 2014, Lekalakala and Earthlife Africa Joburg joined forces with SAFCEI to oppose the deal, and with their colleagues and partners, developed a nationally focused strategy to challenge the project - and the State.
To get Parliament's attention, McDaid and SAFCEI organised weekly anti-nuclear vigils outside Parliament, as well as anti-nuclear marches and political rallies across the country.
Both women, who work at small environmental organisations, through their knowledge and experience, "identified the threat and depth of corruption of the nuclear deal and took the SA government to court, winning against the odds. It was a victory of David and Goliath proportions," said SAFCEI, in a statement.
The nuclear agreement had been keep secret, bypassing the required legal processes, excluding any public consultation or parliamentary debate. "This, coupled with the mounting evidence against nuclear technology globally, drove SAFCEI's decision to oppose the deal.
"The link between the ongoing high-level government corruption and the nuclear deal - the late night cabinet reshuffles and the secret meetings designed to exclude the public - became more obvious to SA citizens," said SAFCEI.
For McDaid, the eco-justice lead at SAFCEI, the risks of nuclear are just too high. "I believe that if people have the facts, they will choose differently. This is what we are doing through our campaigning. For example, there is so much we don't know about the future impacts of nuclear waste, which continues to grow every year," she said, in a statement.
"The nuclear deal was (and potentially still is) a major threat to the livelihood of South African citizens and our quality of life," agreed Lekalakala, in a statement. "There are other ways of generating energy ... that are clean and affordable and puts the power in the hands of the people .... It's not sensible to think that what used to work in the past can still apply now, particularly since the evidence is overwhelming against nuclear technology and fossil fuels."
Their award comes on the eve of the anniversary of the historic ruling by the Western Cape High Court on April 26 last year that the nuclear deal was unlawful and unconstitutional.
McDaid and Lekalakala had made unwavering commitment and personal sacrifices to stop the government from spending R1 trillion on nuclear energy, "which would have bankrupted SA and set us back generations in terms of development. We give thanks and express our gratitude to Liz and Makoma for their tireless dedication and commitment to standing up for justice for all South Africans and our environment," said SAFCEI.
"We commend their tenacity and commitment for blowing the lid off the secret and corrupt nuclear energy deal, which would have bankrupted South Africa and set us back generations in terms of development,"said Francesca de Gasparis, the organisation's executive director.
Susie Gelman, the president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, hailed Lekalakala and McDaid for "epitomising what the foundation stands for: courage, compassion, vision, collaboration, and hard work in the name of environmental justice".
“Makoma has been a tireless campaigner for environmental justice in South Africa,” said Melissa Fourie, the executive director for the Centre for Environmental Rights.
“Makoma and Liziwe led a powerful and effective court battle against the ill-advised nuclear deal, resulting in a victory that benefited all South Africans. It is fantastic to see their courage recognised at an international level.”