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 his 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.
Peter Bosshard is the Policy Director of International Rivers. He tweets at @PeterBosshard.