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SELLO HATANG | Human rights are at stake in the face of the climate crisis

Nelson Mandela’s activism was inextricably linked to today’s battle for climate justice.

Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang shared what Madiba's foundation is doing in its efforts to curb climate change.
Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang shared what Madiba's foundation is doing in its efforts to curb climate change.
Image: File/ Earl Gibson III

Nelson Mandela’s activism was inextricably linked to today’s battle for climate justice. And promoting his legacy has drawn the Nelson Mandela Foundation into inviting veteran climate crisis activist, Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley, to deliver the 20th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. The theme for the lecture is “Social Bonding and Decolonisation in the Context of the Climate Crisis: Perspectives from the Global South”.

Madiba dedicated his life to the ideal of dignity for every human being. That, after all, is what equality is — an assurance that each of us has equal opportunities to thrive. That is an ideal for which we are still fighting. 

In today’s world, we are finding new and emergent crises that deepen and entrench existing fault-lines of oppression and inequity. This is also true of the climate crisis which has been shown to disproportionately affect the global south, whose ecology and environments were made so vulnerable through processes of colonial extraction. Since the industrial revolution, while the global south disproportionately faces climate disasters, much of the global north has continued to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and fortify its regions against climate disasters.

In this way, the climate crisis is a social crisis that targets different people in different ways. Climate justice, then, is about recognising the special responsibility that the global north carries for the climate crisis; it is a recognition of the human rights that are at stake in the climate crisis.

Here at home, this year we have seen devastating floods, which scientists have linked to climate change, wreak havoc in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape; and the effects of a horrific and ongoing drought in parts of the latter.

The climate crisis is the most pressing challenge of our time, and we need all the support we can get. We also need real, practicable solutions to mitigate its effects and to adapt to what we cannot prevent.

The time is now. It’s been now for a long time. We cannot let the global south become a climate sacrifice zone. According to Oxfam:

  • In March 2019, Cyclone Idai took the lives of more than 1,000 people across Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique and devastated millions more who were left destitute without food or basic services.
  • Severe droughts in 2011, 2017 and 2019 have repeatedly wiped out crops and livestock, leaving 15-million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia in need.
  • Over the last year, deadly floods and landslides have forced 12-million people from their homes in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. In some places, the flooding was the worst of the past 30 years, a third of Bangladesh was underwater. 
  • Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua are seeing their typical three-month dry seasons extended to six months or more. Most crops have failed, leaving 3.5-million people, many of whom rely on farming for both food and livelihood, in need of humanitarian assistance, and 2.5-million people food insecure.
  • Rising sea levels, warming temperatures, deforestation, and more frequent and extreme weather events, place the Caribbean at higher risk, to the point of coastal communities and entire islands potentially disappearing if the dangers of global warming are not addressed collectively and urgently. 

Nelson Mandela never shied away from a challenge. In October 2020, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, one of Madiba’s great friends, called environmental destruction “the human rights challenge of our time”. 

Mandela was one of the world’s foremost human rights activists. The fight for which he is, rightly, most famous is the battle against apartheid and discrimination, but that fight was rooted in his struggle for the most basic of human rights: the right to dignity.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation’s overarching mandate is to promote Mandela’s legacy. The best way for us to do that in the context of today, is by beginning to turn our attention to the climate crisis.

Sello Hatang is the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation

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