Maverick Citizen


Mandela Day – if Madiba were alive today… he would have called for urgent and radical action on the climate crisis

Mandela Day – if Madiba were alive today… he would have called for urgent and radical action on the climate crisis
Emissions rise from towers of Sasol's coal-to-liquids plant in Secunda, Mpumalanga. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Tourists and locals during a heatwave in Turin, Italy. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Jessica Pasqualon) | A portrait of Nelson Mandela. (Photo: EPA / Nic Bothma) | The Texas Creek fire south of Lillooet, British Columbia. (Photo: Twitter @BCGovFireInfo)

The Nelson Mandela Foundation says 18 July, Mandela’s birthday, ‘is a call to action for individuals, communities and organisations to take time to reflect on Mandela’s values and principles and to make a positive impact in their own communities’. What action would Mandela have supported in the face of the escalating climate crisis?

Today the world celebrates Nelson Mandela Day, declared a commemorative day by the UN in 2009. The global theme this year is “It is in Your Hands”.

Across South Africa and the world people are organising activities that promote volunteerism and activism, which the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) has requested be linked to the theme “Climate, Food and Solidarity”. The NMF has called for the planting of trees and supporting community food gardens worldwide.

We welcome all these activities and encourage you to become involved. But would Mandela have considered them enough when matched against the scale of the climate crisis and the intransigence of governments and fossil fuel companies to take measures to mitigate it?  

Mandela must not be whitewashed into something ‘safe’ and unchallenging, particularly during a time that needs hard decisions and leadership.

Nelson Mandela was more than a kind and generous man. He was a revolutionary, prepared to make difficult and unpopular decisions, and to make great sacrifices – including of his life – to advance equality and human rights in South Africa and globally.

As captured in Jonny Steinberg’s recent book, Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage, in 1960 it was Mandela who led the ANC – against the initial resistance of his comrades – in its turn to armed struggle, after the National Party had spurned all efforts at reform and negotiation and had turned its guns on peaceful protesters.

Similarly it was Mandela who led the march for peace, again against the initial resistance of his comrades. By then peace had become the radical alternative to fight for.

That is why, in the interests of truth, the critical aspect of Mandela’s legacy that should be preserved and considered is his radicalism. Mandela must not be whitewashed into something “safe” and unchallenging, particularly during a time that needs hard decisions and leadership. Mandela was not about 67 minutes, but about a life’s orientation to justice on every front where injustice rears its head.  

That is one of the reasons the NMF’s linking of Mandela Day 2023 to the exploding climate crisis must not be overlooked, or greenwashed.

The world on fire

It is relevant because this year’s Mandela Day takes place at a time of deepening climate catastrophe. For a combination of natural and manmade reasons global heating is now accelerating at a frightening rate and is already taking a terrible human cost. Over several days last week the world recorded its hottest temperatures to date.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Mapped: Extreme weather and climate phenomena around the world

Terms like “heat storm” (today engulfing Southern Europe), and “rain bombs” (killing 14 drivers yesterday in a motorway underpass in South Korea) have rapidly entered our lexicon and become a new “normal”.

It is not normal!

Perversely, in this context, the oil companies that have contributed the most to the climate crisis, the fossil fuel industries and the men who own them – Shell, Total, BP – have never had it so good. While millions suffer dislocation, homelessness, ill health, they are making absurd, unlawful and immoral profits – more than $2oo-billion in 2022.

Mandela climate

Rescue workers near a recovered electric bus close to an underpass that was submerged by a flooded river following torrential rain in Cheongju, South Korea, on 16 July 2023. (Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-ji)

And as explained in this article in the UK Guardian, making it worse is the fact that they are bedding down on the behaviours and business models that are causing this crisis, rather than following scientific evidence and moving rapidly to alternatives. 

According to The Guardian

“BP scaled back an earlier goal of lowering its emissions by 35% by 2030, saying it will aim for a 20% to 30% cut instead. ExxonMobil quietly withdrew funding for a heavily publicised effort to use algae to create low-carbon fuel. And Shell announced that it would not increase its investments in renewable energy this year, despite earlier promises to dramatically slash its emissions.”

In addition, they are using their undue influence and power over governments to make sure that governments do the same, and backtrack on the very weak pledges they have made as part of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

King Coal and Big Oil threaten millions of lives and livelihoods and, as in Mandela’s time, it is the weakest who will suffer the most. For example, it is now estimated by the UNHCR that there are 44 million people displaced in sub-Saharan Africa, many of them due to the climate crisis and food insecurity.

So, what would Mandela have done and said at this moment?

This weekend I participated in a discussion organised by Extinction Rebellion (XR) in Gauteng. Activists were debating when civil disobedience is justified and how to conduct it effectively. This followed a recent protest organised by XR against Standard Bank at its headquarters in Rosebank, Johannesburg, that made international news when veteran activist Kumi Naidoo was manhandled out of the foyer. 

Read more in the Daily Maverick: Kumi Naidoo forcibly removed from Standard Bank HQ after protest over crude oil pipeline project

XR, Greenpeace, the Climate Justice Coalition and other organisations  are calling for Standard Bank to end its financing of the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline project. 

Despite what governments might say, it has been peaceful acts of civil disobedience that have so far drawn most attention to the climate crisis.

So far their protest has fallen on deaf ears. As a result XR is planning to step up its civil disobedience campaign targeting the bank, as well as fossil fuel companies and government inertia. 

What would Mandela have said?

When working within the law fails to bring change, peaceful civil disobedience has a long tradition of action that draws attention to injustice, and demands action. As Kumi Naidoo says in an essay in a recent book, The Revolution Will Not be Litigated: People Power and Legal Power in the 21st century, it has a communicative power. He quotes US historian Howard Zinn as saying that at moments of existential crisis, “the problem is not civil disobedience. The problem is civil obedience”.     

Despite what governments might say, it has been peaceful acts of civil disobedience that have so far drawn most attention to the climate crisis, whether it be the school strike started by Greta Thunberg, the protests organised by Extinction Rebellion and more recently the disruptive protest in several European countries carried out by individuals supporting Just Stop Oil

Is this civil disobedience justified? Of course it is. A small amount of civil inconvenience at a sporting event or art gallery weighs little against the planetary issues now at stake. A greater inconvenience will come when outdoor sporting events can no longer be held during summer months. The fact of the matter is that the fossil fuel companies are the epitome of much that is abominable in the world: unbridled greed, selfishness, corruption, collusion, oppression, authoritarianism. 

Their businesses are oblivious to human rights and planetary interests. 

Three decades for appeals to reason, scientific evidence and appeals to their humanity do not move them. As a result we are on the eve of destruction.

On Mandela Day 2023 each one of us needs to reflect on the climate crisis and what we can do individually and collectively to address it. I think Mandela would have encouraged protests and called on people all over the world to become part of a mass mobilisation against the fossil fuel companies and those who are in their pockets. He would have been at the forefront of promoting safe alternatives to fossil fuels.  

Even if you don’t act on Mandela Day, think deeply about these issues. After all, nothing less than humanity’s future is now at stake. DM


Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Epsilon Indi says:

    How an author can worry about Mandela and climate change when South Africa faces the most severe political and corruption crisis is beyond me. The political crisis that South Africa is battling is several orders of magnitude more important and deserving of attention than some crisis a greenie is whining about. Mandela must be turning in his grave considering how the ANC cadres are “eating” the country and the economy. The political crisis is grim and acute, if South Africa does not solve it and fast South Africa will morph not only into a failed state but also a smoking ruin. Right now is not the time to invoke Mandela on climate change, now is the time to invoke Mandela on political change.

    • Lawrence Sisitka says:

      Wow, this response from Epsilon Indi is almost unbelievable – even more so if they are Greek as the name suggests. Sure, the deep systemic corruption of many in the current government is a crisis of considerable magnitude for us in SA, but it pales to nothing in comparison with the genuinely existential crisis we are facing in terms of climate change. And no, it is not just some ‘greenie whining’ – it is an almost complete (>99%) scientific consensus telling us that the world is on the brink of becoming unlivable. The climate crisis is already horrendously grim and acute for millions of the planets human inhabitants, and untold numbers of other species. Yes, we have to work on many fronts, to address the mindblowing corporate and individual greed driving climate change, and the deeply cynical corruption within the ruling party, but it is the former that is likely to kill millions, particularly among the least culpable and poorest people on the planet. So, maybe take a bit of a risk and poke your head over the parapet of the SA laager and see what the real crisis faced by the world is, and it is not the ANC, desperate though the political situation they have created is.

    • Andrew Johnson says:

      Well said, does anyone thank that this version of Mandela’s ANC gives a toss about the Climate? happily driving fast cars, surrounded by blue light brigades, going to the airport to catch a jet plane for a “well deserved” leave in the Maldives, which should be under the sea by now ., according to the Climate Activists of ten years ago.
      The earth will decide when it is time for the dominant species to go away and be repleaced by some other creatures.

    • Judy Scott-Goldman says:

      The World Meteorological Organisation says that the world’s average temperature will breach 1.5 degrees C in the next few years. We are edging very close to baking in the unravelling of the biophysical underpinning of life on earth and future generations will experience this unravelling in all its horror and be unable to reverse it. If you believe this is insignificant, you are not paying attention.

  • Mark Gory Gory says:

    Nelson is too busy spinning in his grave abd despairing of what the anc now represents. All his sacrifice and for what? Saddest space we occupy

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    Certainly, he would have but not before he booted out every ANC crook, apologised to South Africa irrespective of race and placed the country for the untold damage done to the country he loved and spent 27 years in jail and gained liberation. Climate Change was happening well before he became President. we thank the first world countries for climate change and all their wonderful creations that caused it!

  • Ian McGill says:

    As he said himself when he was released from Pollsmoor ” I am a loyal and disciplined member of the ANC”. Which means that, if he really was in charge in the first few years of democracy, he would have been no different from Cyril. Take off the rose-tinted glasses.

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