Thursday, December 5, 2013

Memories of Nelson Mandela

Memories of Nelson Mandela
By Peter Bosshard, International Rivers
December 5, 2013

Nelson Mandela, who passed away today, was one of my very few personal
heroes. Through the World Commission on Dams report, his life-long
commitment to human rights dignity briefly shone a light on our own
modest work.

When I was a young activist in the Swiss anti-apartheid movement, Nelson
Mandela's heroic struggle and sacrifice offered inspiration and
determination. Every year we celebrated the birthday of the incarcerated
freedom fighter with defiant parties in the heart of Switzerland's
financial center, which sold much of the apartheid state's gold. In 1990
we undertook a joyful pilgrimage when Nelson Mandela visited Geneva for
a meeting with anti-apartheid activists shortly after he was released
from prison.

My respect for Madiba (as Mandela was known among his admirers in South
Africa) deepened when I had the chance to read his epic autobiography,
Long Walk to Freedom, and visit his prison cell on Robben Island. I was
captivated by his perseverance through decades of oppression, and
appalled by the senseless waste of human talent and hope for his country
through 27 years of incarceration. Most of all, I was touched by the
personal strength of an activist who managed to uphold his principles
when there appeared to be no hope, and who showed magnanimity for this
oppressors by refusing to become, as he put it, a "prisoner of hate".

In November 2000, Nelson Mandela honored the launch of the World
Commission on Dams report in London with his presence. The independent
Commission had been chaired by South Africa's former water minister
Kader Asmal, and its ground-breaking report espoused the same insistence
on human dignity and political inclusion that marked the life-long
struggle of the two ANC comrades.

Not by coincidence, the most important contribution of the WCD report to
the global dams debate was its focus on the rights of all affected
parties. The report states: "[This approach] is based on an
understanding that no party's rights will extinguish another's. In fact,
where rights compete or conflict, negotiations conducted in good faith
offer the only process through which various interests can be
legitimately reconciled."

As we celebrated the launch of the WCD report in London, Nelson Mandela,
who had by then retired from political life, clearly enjoyed the
opportunity of traveling the world in freedom. In his speech, he paid
tribute to the Commissioners for their "invaluable guidance" and spoke
to "the careful use of our collective life support systems, the rivers
entrusted to us as stewards of nature."

Even if it is only a tiny part of his legacy, I am grateful for the
spotlight that Nelson Mandela put on rivers and dams through the WCD
report. The freedom fighter has passed away, but his life continues to
be a monument to human strength and conviction. Rest in peace, Madiba.

[Nelson Mandela's speech at the launch of the WCD report is available at]

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