South African leader Nelson Mandela has been an example of perseverance, patience, diplomacy and fighting for justice for entire generations. His achievements in human rights are well known, and his journey from a cell to the presidency of his country is legendary. However, little is said about the fact that he was a pioneer on issues of sustainability and what he called “environmental justice.”
A childhood in the countryside
Mandela grew up in a village and since he was a boy he took care of the family’s livestock, so his relationship with the land and the rhythms of nature defined him from an early age. Since then he has noticed how climate change could affect the lives of those who live in the countryside.
His fight: environmental justice
For Mandela, social justice and civil rights go hand in hand with environmental justice. This is, there can’t be social peace if deforestation and other ways of exploiting the resources threaten common wellbeing.
For Mandela, the right to water was a human right
One of the greatest struggles Mandela ever waged was for the right to water. Knowing that the vital liquid is in danger of becoming a private asset, he modified his country’s constitution once he came to power so that access to water became a human right. As reported by the Fund for Environmental Education and Communication,Mandela said during the Earth Summit in 2002: “Access to water is a common goal. It is a central issue in the social, economic and political affairs of the country, the African continent, and the world. It should be a leading sector of cooperation for global development. Without water, there is no future.” Wise words.
South Africa: an ecological paradise at risk
Mandela promoted various initiatives to protect the very rich but fragile South African ecosystems. As recalled by Dr. Morné du Plessis, then director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in South Africa, recalled after the death of Madiba (as Mandela was affectionately known): “Under his presidency, Mandela created the Cape Peninsula National Park, which is home to one of the seven wonders of the natural world, Table Mountain.” This park is a sanctuary for species that are endangered due to the illegal trade of exotic animals and the deforestation that destroys the environment. It is also home to one of the largest penguin colonies on the African continent.