Nelson Mandela’s legacy and the climate crisis

July 18, 2021
 Image: VectorStock

Applying Lessons from the Global Peace and Social Justice Icon to Humanity’s Greatest Challenge Yet

There are people who leave such an indelible mark on our shared story of humanity that time bookmarks their words and actions in the pages of history. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was one such person. Recently thinking of him against the backdrop of the global conversation on climate change and the loss of biodiversity that is gathering speed as the upcoming United Nations COP meetings (COP 15 on biodiversity and COP 26 on climate change) draw near, I realized that a number of his remarks would perfectly fit in and speak to the twin crises. I was not surprised. That is to be expected; Mandela had the sort of timeless wisdom that is distilled by years of experience, a myriad of challenges and extraordinary triumphs. The kind that our African elders always lean on when they say that “an old man seated on a stool can see farther than a young boy atop a tree.”

Mandela remained devoted to championing peace and social justice in South Africa and around the world until his death in 2013 at the age of 95. Earlier on, in 2009,  the United Nations had declared July 18 “Nelson Mandela International Day ” in recognition of his contributions to peace, democracy, freedom and human rights around the world.  On this Mandela Day, from beyond the grave he reminds us; “The world remains besotted by so much human suffering, poverty and deprivation… it is in your hands to make a better one for all.” 

From Mandela forgiving his jailers and even inviting them as honoured guests at his inauguration, to fostering racial reconciliation as opposed to retaliation against the white minority that had institutionalized apartheid and him keeping his word by handing over power after just one term in office, many have found profound inspiration in his life and legacy.

One of these sources of inspiration is no doubt his stirring statement at the Rivonia trial where he courageously declared, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. ” He and his comrades narrowly escaped the death penalty.

This statement is what crossed my mind when an email popped up in my inbox a few days ago informing me that one person is killed every 48 hours while protecting our world’s natural resources such as from illegal loggers and miners destroying the Amazon and poachers roaming the Savannah among other menaces. These “earth defenders” are brave women and men from indigenous and traditional communities defending earth’s biodiversity for future generations. This is the ideal they are ready and willing to die for. This, combined with Mandela’s statement ought to prompt the question “what are you willing to die for?” in all of us. What are you giving your life to?

The second thing I am reflecting upon this Mandela Day is how we are now connecting the dots between climate change and biodiversity loss. In his lifetime, Mandela pointed to the link between social justice and ecological justice and used his voice to draw attention to the burgeoning water crisis in many developing countries. 

We know that political freedom alone is still not enough if you lack clean water. Freedom alone is not enough… without access to water to irrigate your farm, without the ability to catch fish to feed your family. For this reason the struggle for sustainable development nearly equals the struggle for political freedom,” the Nobel Prize Laureate said at the 2002 Earth Summit. In his unwaveringly resolute manner, he delineated clean water access and sanitation as a basic human right that should be a universal goal on each nation’s political agenda.  “No water, no future,” was his echo of the “No water, no life” mantra.

It comes as no surprise then, that South Africa’s constitution – which Mandela promulgated in December 1996- guaranteed various socio-economic rights (SERs), including the right to a healthy environment for everyone in South Africa. Section 24 of the constitution calls for protection of the environment in order to ensure the health and well-being of individuals. It further dictates that the state has a duty to respect, protect, promote and fulfill environmental rights not only by refraining from initiating or partaking in activities that would result in the violation of the right but also by engaging and promoting activities that will result in the full realisation of the right. A constitution ahead of its time, it required  the state to be proactive in realizing this environmental right and outlined a range of positive obligations to be fulfilled including adoption of progressive policies, adequate planning and proper resource allocation. All this made the South African constitution one of the most eco-conscious at a time when many governments had not taken on such a responsibility or even fleshed out the link between environmental policies and the socio-economic wellbeing of their citizens.

This link is becoming crystal-clear as research and reports continue to reveal the risks that climate change and biodiversity loss pose to our socio-economic prosperity and sustainability. This would have hardly come as a surprise to Mandela; he was perceived by many as the personification of ubuntu, the African philosophy that emphasizes our interconnectedness. It is the tenet that states “I am because you are. To cause injury to you is to cause injury to myself. To contribute to your demise is to essentially dig my own grave.” As the effects of the climate and biodiversity crisis continue to highlight just how intrinsically linked one corner of the earth is to another, Mandela’s insistence on unity and collaboration in the face of challenges can serve as a wonderful reminder to meet our crises with concerted and dedicated global efforts.

Those efforts are crucial this year. 2021 is a critical year for climate action and perhaps our last chance to put measures in place to ensure a sustainable and livable future for all by limiting global warming to 1.5˚C.  The International Energy Agency released a U-turn report that calls for a rapid transition to a net zero energy system terming it as our best chance of tackling climate change. This makes it “perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced” as per the IEA Executive Director; our collective “Mission Impossible” we could call it.  There is no doubt in my mind as to what Mandela would say to this. In his ever- unwavering manner, he would emphatically remind us that “It seems impossible until it is done.“ And so we must keep on hoping. And act. 

On this Mandela Day, why not honour his legacy and help realise our collective dream of a more sustainable world by signing a petition that will be presented to the Presidents of both COPs ahead of and at the conferences? The Healthy Planet Healthy People petition is our chance to demand real action now for a liveable future for us all.  And what a difference it will make!

Amandla! (The power!)

Awethu! (Is ours!)

By Mercy Ikũri 

Fossil Fuel Divestment Intern, GCCM

Kenya