South Africa made a secret deal with the Russian government in 2014: In exchange for $76 billion, Russia would build up to 10 nuclear power stations throughout the country that would produce up to 9.6 gigawatts of power. In both scope and cost, it would be the world's largest such deal.

The first station would be built on Port Elizabeth on South Africa's eastern coast, where it would discharge warm water, likely raising ocean temperatures and harming the ecosystem and livelihoods of area fishermen. The deal assigned all liability in case of accidents to South Africa.

But this was before Makoma Lekalakala, director of Earthlife Africa, got her hands on a copy of the secret agreement. Upon hearing of the proposed plant's environmental impacts, Lekalakala teamed up with Liz McDaid, an interfaith environmental activist with Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI).

Together, the women met with communities across South Africa, explaining the financial, environmental and health risks of the plant and holding weekly vigils and regular public rallies in front of Cape Town's Parliament building. They based their protests on the fact that the nuclear agreement had been kept secret, bypassing legal process without any public consultation or debate.

The women also took the case to court, noting that residents should have a say in how they receive their energy and citing this situation as an abuse to that process. After three years, the High Court of South Africa's Western Cape ruled that the deal was unconstitutional, invalidating the agreement and shutting down plans for the massive nuclear plants.

Lekalakala and McDaid won the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize, which recognizes environmental champions from six continents annually. We recently sat down with Lekalakala and McDaid to hear more about their story.

KP: South Africa currently has one operational nuclear power station, which was established prior to this deal. What has been the impact on local communities?

Makoma Lekalakala: That nuclear power station is outside the city of Cape Town in Atlantis. Namaqualand is the low-waste disposal site. Local communities around the nuclear power plant are mostly not aware of the nuclear issue. We have been working to raise awareness against the building of new nuclear plants. Now that the nuclear deal has been put on hold, we are going to focus on working with local communities who want to close down the nuclear power plant.

Liz McDaid : Local communities around the waste disposal site have protested against this for many years. We have helped them to raise their voices.

KP: What danger did the proposed nuclear stations pose to the South African communities surrounding them?

LM : Any nuclear power plant poses a risk to surrounding communities—there is always a risk of an accident, which would destroy the livelihoods of the people nearby. Coastal communities are dependent on fish, and these fisheries would be threatened. No health studies have been carried out to assess the impacts of radiation from living near a nuclear power plant, and there is no epidemiology study planned for any of the areas where power plants are due to be built.

KP: What legal systems and practices made your victory possible?

ML : Our legal team prepared the way for court action by documenting the legal processes needed, and which the government ignored. Through our organizations, we sought answers from government officials on their intent to expand the energy mix through new nuclear power stations. Realizing that both regulations and legislation were being flouted, we used legislation to try to get responses.

Since we did not get responses from government, we had to then resort to the courts.

The Electricity Regulatory Act, the Public Finance and Management Act and the Integrated Resource plan were the main legal instruments used for filing this case. The constitution is the highest law of the land, and it provides for government decisions that must be taken in an efficient and accountable way.  Parliamentary processes laid out in the constitution were ignored, and Parliament misled.

Energy regulation must include public participation, and it did not in this case. Our success was due to our determination to not let government get away with ignoring and breaking the law.

KP: How can South Africa expand its energy access sustainably?

ML : Both SAFCEI and Earthlife Africa have strong positions on renewable energy and the need for a transition that ensures renewable energy plays its role in socio-economic development.  So socially owned renewables and renewable energy produced in a way that maximizes local manufacturing and job creation are important.  Now that we believe nuclear is not going to rise again for a long time, we are also focusing on the fight against coal and other fossil fuels.

LM : We are also vocal in ensuring that electricity prices remain affordable to all, and that renewable energy interventions are directed to those experiencing energy poverty. This is also about focusing on women.

This deal would have provided 9.6 gigawatts of energy for South Africa, a country with a growing demand for energy. Some people would say that shutting this plant down is a missed opportunity. What is your response to that?

ML : South Africa has abundant unexploited renewable energy sources that can provide much needed electricity access to communities experiencing energy poverty. Also, the country has international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have committed in its nationally determined contribution (NDC) to a just energy transition.

LM : Nuclear power is not a zero emitter in carbon emissions, as erroneously claimed by the nuclear industry. It is also the most expensive form of electricity and leaves behind toxic waste so dangerous that it must be kept safe for hundreds of thousands of years.  Renewable energy is much safer and better.

KP: What has been the greatest challenge that you both have faced in standing up to this nuclear deal?

ML : Earthlife Africa has campaigned against nuclear since its inception in 1988, but taking up legal challenges is not cheap in South Africa. Our legal representatives had to augment work they did pro bono.

LM: SAFCEI's board realised in 2014 that court action might be the only way to stop the nuclear deal. But committing to such action meant that the organization suffered in being unable to focus on other key areas of its programmes, and is only now getting back onto its feet. Personally, dedicating almost all my working day to one cause was draining, and took its toll on family life. But it has been worth it, and hopefully, we played a role in bringing South Africa back into a space of following the law.

Environmental defenders face threats, especially when they step up against powerful stakeholders like governments. What inspires you to keep fighting, despite this risk?

LM: Our conviction that we are acting in the public interest and protecting our constitutional rights of environmental justice. We cannot be held ransom by a few in government who have taken what rightfully belongs to all the people and are now using it as if it is their own personal property. 

_This Q&A is based on an interview with two Goldman Environmental Prize winners, and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of WRI. _