Comment: Mandela cared deeply about the environment

While we remember Nelson Mandela for his courage in the cause of justice and freedom, few Canadians are aware of his love for nature. Even fewer know the role that Canada played in developing South Africa’s environmental policy.

In his inauguration speech on May 10, 1994, he said: “Each time one of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a sense of personal renewal. … We are moved by a sense of joy and exhilaration when the grass turns green and the flowers bloom.”

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I had the honour of meeting Mandela in September 1994 to present him with a report recommending a new environmental policy for South Africa. Instead of a short, formal photo-op, Mandela sat down with us for almost an hour to discuss our 200-page report, the work of 16 volunteer environmental scientists and activists. We had travelled throughout South Africa and heard from hundreds of ordinary people as well as decision-makers.

The environmental mission was put together by a powerful alliance of the African National Congress, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the South African Communist Party and the South African National Civic Organization.

It was funded by Canadians, through the International Development Research Centre and was preceded by years of Canadian support to South African researchers who could not get funding from the apartheid regime. Thus, by 1994, with Canadian help, much scientific groundwork had been done by apartheid’s opponents and the experience helped them to play key roles in the new South Africa.

But in the run-up to the elections of April 1994, bombs were killing people in Johannesburg and Pretoria, and the situation in KwaZulu-Natal was so unstable that it was feared elections would not be able to be held there. Initially, we were concerned that in those tumultuous times, the environment would be seen as a middle-class, “white” issue, synonymous with nature conservation and game parks and far from the reality of most black South Africans.

How wrong we were! We found that all over South Africa — in crowded townships like Soweto, trade union halls, and in tiny rural communities — people were proud of their natural environment and wanted to protect that inheritance for their children. If we heard one common message, it was that South Africans saw their own health and the health of their land, air and water as one and the same. And so did their president.

In our meeting, I experienced the playfulness, total concentration and steely resolve that so many recall of Mandela. His first question to me was “Do you like my new shirt?” and he waited for a considered answer about his colourful silk batik from his nonplussed visitor.

Out of a report that covered the environmental spectrum — from agriculture, mining, nuclear power, nature conservation and waste management — Mandela expressed concern about air pollution and particularly its effect on children. He told us that he was proud that the bill of rights then being drafted included environmental rights for all citizens (take note, Canada). Those environmental rights are enshrined in the constitution of South Africa (1997) as:

“Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have that environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations.”

Toward the end of the meeting, in a quiet but steely voice, Mandela promised: “This report will not sit on a shelf — the issues it deals with are too important.”

It didn’t. After nationwide public consultations, the National Environmental Management Act was passed in 1998, a far-seeing act that embodies the principles of “polluter pays” and the precautionary principle to “do no harm.”

Mandela wrote a foreword to our mission report that bears witness to his environmental commitment:

“Our people are bound up with the future of our land. Our national renewal depends upon the way we treat our land, our water, our sources of energy, and the air we breathe. … Let us restore our country in a way that satisfies our descendants as well as ourselves.”

While Canadians can be proud of the support Canada’s government gave 20 years ago to environmental research and activism in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, they may also wonder if that support would be forthcoming from Canada today — or even if we would be asked.

Anne Whyte of Victoria is the former director-general for Environment and Natural Resources, International Development Research Centre (Ottawa), and was leader of the Environmental Mission for South Africa, 1993-94.

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