Nelson Mandela's legacy for climate activists

As the life of one of the world’s great heroes draws to a close, many will hopefully use his passing not to speculate on the downfall of South Africa, nor to claim ownership of his legacy, but rather to reflect back on Nelson Mandela’s long and courageous life in order to draw inspiration from one of the world’s moral stalwarts who weathered the storms of oppression, racism, injustice and inequality and not only managed to come out of the other side a smiling, compassionate and forgiving leader, but in doing so navigated a path through those storms which has helped to inspire generations of leaders to come.

As I attempt to do just that, please join me as a proud South African, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, a great admirer of Mandela’s life and work, and a climate activist and philosopher deeply inspired by Mandela, as I reflect back on and celebrate the life of my hero and the hero of so many others and draw on the lessons he has to offer us in an attempt to find inspiration to help build the climate movement. In doing so I hope to honour Tata Madiba’s memory the best way I know how, by building on it to create a better world. Of course, Mandela’s name is not one synonymous with climate change and so the aim of this article might seem strange. However, while climate change was not the issue that defined Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom”, a reflection on Mandela’s philosophy and life reveals a profound overlap with the principles and commitments of the climate justice movement, and therein lies many important lessons not only for the climate community but for humanity as a whole to learn from.

Mandela’s Cosmopolitan Ubuntu: A Foundation for Climate Ethics

“We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender, and other discrimination… We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace. We understand that… there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as united people for reconciliation… for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all, let there be peace for all” – Nelson Mandela

It has often struck me that the above excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s inaugural address as president of South Africa should be used as the opening pledge of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, as well as any other United Nations meeting for that matter. However, while the aims in Madiba’s speech are aspired to by nations across the globe, they are underpinned by a deeply African philosophical commitment to the interdependence and interconnectedness of people, the broader realization of which could help bring together the global community to shape the sort of response needed to a global crisis like climate change that connects all of humanity together into a collective destiny born of our shared atmosphere and planet, our shared home…

In Mandela’s native isiXhosa tongue the saying ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ is a maxim which underpins the philosophy of Ubuntu. Roughly translated, it means that a person is a person through other people. That a person’s identity, their personhood and humanity, is inextricably tied into the personhood of others. What this means is that your well-being, your ability to thrive and live a full human life is only possible through the thriving of your community. To paraphrase Mandela, true enrichment is naturally aligned with the duty to act towards the growth and well-being of one’s community. Many have interpreted this as a narrow ethic confined to the limits of one’s own tribe, regional community or nation, but for Madiba the scope of Ubuntu expanded to all of humanity, to the community made up of each and every one of us. One could call this Madiba’s Cosmopolitan Ubuntu, and for Madiba it is tied into the recognition that every human being is inherently valuable and has a right to dignity and a decent life. (1)

Contrary to a strong individualism which permeates the Western world, the ethic of Ubuntu, when combined with Mandela’s cosmopolitan valuing of all humanity, would allow us to see that the enrichment or development of one individual, one community or one nation is not truly enrichment if it is achieved at the expense of other individuals, other communities, other nations or future generations. Perhaps within this profound philosophy lies the kernel of a definition of sustainable development, one based on becoming a positive part of one’s broader community. If we accept such a philosophy then given our knowledge of anthropogenic climate change, our drive to enrich ourselves through the use of greenhouse gas intensive modes of development at the expense of our climate, our planet and the well-being of current and future generations, should not be seen as true development but something that violates Ubuntu, diminishes our humanity and makes us as individuals, nations, and as a global community, less than we could otherwise be.

Climate Justice & Ubuntu

Underlying Ubuntu for Mandela was the belief that each person had a common ‘core of decency’, within which lay the potential to achieve the principles of Ubuntu. (2) However, teaching a lion to eat grass might be easier than convincing Shell and BP to live according to the principles of Ubuntu for we have created soulless institutions which are bereft of such a core. Thus relying on voluntary commitment to the principles of uBuntu to help us weather the ‘perfect moral storm of climate change’ (3) would indeed be naïve in the face of incredibly powerful institutions who have no such core.

A response to these problems can also be found within Mandela’s thought, for he realized that Ubuntu was about more than defining one’s own identity through Ubuntu and that a commitment to Ubuntu was also permeated by questions of justice, and that it is to the demands of justice that we must hold both ourselves & our institutions accountable when we fall so drastically short of the mark. Enforcing this point at the 2005 Make Poverty History fundraiser concert, Mandela took the stage and gave a rallying cry to make poverty history. For Mandela, “like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human being”. Thus, Mandela continued, “overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life”.

Although Mandela might not of known it, the statement he made has particular pertinence for climate change, for our continued emissions pathway coupled with our failure to act and act with urgency, especially the failure of those in positions of power, affluence and wealth, may very well halt and then reverse the progress we have made on reducing poverty, leading to poverty the scale of which this world has never seen before. Indeed, as the Stern Report points out, “Climate change threatens the basic elements of life for people around the world – access to water, food production, health, and use of land and the environment” (Stern, 2007, p. vi). And, according to the 2013 UN Human Development Report, climate change and other environmental disasters could put an additional 3.1 billion people into extreme poverty by 2050 if no significant steps are taken.

Thus, like poverty for Mandela, climate change and its detrimental effects are a manmade problem and not a question of charity, rather a matter of justice, especially for the global poor and future generations for whom addressing climate change is about the protection of fundamental human rights, such as the right to dignity and a decent life, and often even the right to life itself. Given this stark reality Mandela’s call to end poverty, his call to justice, rings out just as loudly as it did then. The challenge of climate change makes his call even sharper, even more urgent, and even more fundamentally a matter of justice.

The Time for Armed Struggle?

As Richard Stengel enumerates in Mandela’s Way, Nelson Mandela is an idealistic pragmatist. For although Mandela is indeed a man of great principle, he is also a pragmatist who is willing to compromise in order to attain the ends underpinned by his principles. Furthermore, he is willing to swallow his pride, and realise when a strategy is no longer working and adapt his strategy to changing circumstances. The most prominent example of this is Mandela’s initial commitment to non-violent struggle, as inspired by the philosophy of Gandhi. A commitment which he dropped in 1961 when he and Walter Sisulu co-founded the armed wing of the African National Congress Umkonto We Sizwe (“The Spear of the Nation”) in the face of increasing oppression by the Apartheid government. The decision to pursue armed struggle was taken on as Mandela realized that non-violent struggle was not sufficient to bring about the changes needed in the fight against Apartheid. Here Mandela recognised that circumstances called for a change in strategy, for compromise in order to attain the end goal of equality for all South Africans.

Similarly with regards to the climate change movement our continued failed attempts and the attending ever increasing level of greenhouse gases should lead us to question our strategies. In this light, the increasing ‘radicalization’ of much of the climate movement, such as the Sierra Club’s shift to embracing civil disobedience, can perhaps be seen as an important and necessary step in the evolution of the climate struggle. After all, as Bill McKibben points out, are not those whose policies and business strategies are causing the radical alteration of our climate the real radicals in this situation?

When even conservative organizations like the International Energy Agency proclaim that nothing short of an “energy revolution” will be needed to keep global warming below two degrees, then perhaps it is time that we as climate activists and citizens of the world stopped just tinkering around the edges and making polite requests within stale UN spaces and moved on to more radical means to achieve the ends of creating a safe planet to live on. Indeed, while I am in no regard trying to underplay the moral gravity of Apartheid, but if the Apartheid struggle warranted a rise to armed struggle, then surely the fight for the future of human civilization and for life on our planet as we know it merits a similar radicalization in the face of a battle that is being lost on so many fronts?

Now I am not calling for an armed wing of the climate movement, for [insert religious figure] only knows what that would look like and who they would fight, but it seems clear that given our current climate predicament it is time that we too upped the ante. The real question to me seems to be how far we should do so, not whether we should be doing so, and how much we should be willing to compromise with the so-called ‘enemy’.

Befriending Your Enemies

Mandela is often quoted as saying that “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner”. However, Mandela was not always so willing to compromise and make peace with the enemy and his younger days as an activist in the African National Congress’ Youth League were in many ways akin to those of many young climate activists coming to the fore nowadays – very radical and oppositional, creating dichotomies and more divisive discourse, rather than the inclusive discourse currently associated with Tata Madiba. It was only as Mandela aged and his skills of negotiation, compassion and knowledge grew that he came to appreciate more and more the need to have a discussion which did not ‘other’ the enemy but rather brought them together in an inclusive conversation as a partner moving forward. (4)

One might use this point to argue that much of the especially younger climate change movement that attempts to ostracize and vilify fossil fuel companies are immature and that in time they will hopefully develop to a more realistic movement that is more willing to compromise and in do so make real progress. But perhaps given the results of compromise so far (Cf. 400ppm), and similarly a reflection on the continued systemic injustices in South Africa, the point may also lean in support of stronger radicalism and the need for more radical ideas and change as an integral part of a real solution to the systemic nature of our climate problem. Which way the evidence points I will leave to the reader to judge. However, it is important to remember that even Mandela makes mistakes.

Indeed, Mandela would be the first to tell you that he is not a saint and it is this humility that may be one of his greatest lessons for us, as it deeply tied into his willingness to learn from his mistakes and change strategy when necessary. One of the areas where Madiba has often been criticized was for his willingness to compromise and negotiate with the enemy. Indeed many believe that the compromise that led to the end of Apartheid had not gone far enough towards creating a just South Africa and that the resolution was largely a political and symbolic one but not a truly systemic and economic shift. Perhaps given that the inequalities in South Africa remain strong and in some cases have widened since the end of Apartheid, the criticisms are not unfounded. Perhaps following from this point, radical opposition to the fossil fuel industry is the only solution radical enough to truly address the systemic nature of the climate change problem…

Of course, all out radicalism is no solution either, for radicalism by its very nature is oppositional and if we are to work together to create a better future we need to know when to reign in our activism and sit down at the negotiating table. Thus, learning from Madiba, a balance we should attempt to seek is one defined by the question of when we are pursuing radicalism at the expense of a more attainable, negotiated and compromised solution i.e. we must be able to keep an eye on when our radicalism is sacrificing the attainable on the altar of the idealistic. Indeed, compromise is an important part of the way forward; the difficult question is how far we should be willing to compromise. In the case of Apartheid South Africa the alternative to compromise may very well have been a bloody civil war. The alternative in the climate arena may not be very pretty either.

Celebrating Our Victories and Preparing for the Road Ahead

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” – Nelson Mandela

This beautiful passage from Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ should give us pause to reflect as a movement, as humanity. Firstly, to appreciate how far we too have come, how many hills we have climbed. In the space of just a few short decades, recognising our role in changing our climate, we have created a global movement founded on respect for each other and recognition of our shared humanity and mutual home. This is a truly magnificent achievement, and although we too have faltered many times along the way and are far from perfect, to paraphrase Mandela, the true measure of a person or a movement is not how many times they succeed but how many times they fall and get up. We have fallen many times but we have fought off despair and in Mandela’s words we kept our head pointed towards the sun and our feet moving forward. Yes, we keep on seeing that the mountain is much higher than we had initially thought, but we need to look back and see how far we have come and marvel in the view. For looking back on the distance we have come this far will remind us how great our potential is for the future, and while the task ahead may at times seem daunting let us remember too, that “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela

Similarly overcoming Apartheid often seemed impossible, especially when seen through the perspective of limited social imaginaries that focused on limiting perspectives such as ‘real politik’ and selfish-individualism. However, through visions of greatness inspired by leaders such as Mandela the seemingly impossible was brought into the realm of the possible. (5) Likewise, in order to rise up to the immensity of the challenge of climate change we need to overcome the narrow and limited social imaginaries that dominate much of our discourse. We need to overcome ideas and policies that limit what is possible and shackle us to a future defined by climate chaos and the damages and destruction associated with it. We need to continue to break down the hegemonic discourse that tells us that we can’t create a better world and replace it with a vision of positive possibilities defined by fairness, equality, and a decent life for all both now and in the future. Of course, this is no easy task and will require great effort on our behalf, but as Mandela went on to say towards the end of his call to end poverty: “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation”. “Let your greatness blossom. Of course the task will not be easy. But not to do this would be a crime against humanity, against which I ask all humanity now to rise up”.

So, my fellow global citizens, if we are to honour the memory of such a great man and all of those before and after him, perhaps the best way we can do so is to continue to rise up, to aspire to be that great generation, Mandela’s great generation.


  1. Some have even gone so far as to connect the philosophy of Ubuntu not only to making all of humanity part of our community and identity, but also all living beings. This has deep resonance in much Eastern philosophy as well as with an emerging strand of Western Environmental Philosophy.
  2. Cf. Claire Oppenheim’s Nelson Mandela and the Power of Ubuntu
  3. A term coined by Stephen Gardiner (Cf.
  4. This progress from young radical to older statesman is masterfully and critically documented in Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” – a must read for anyone wanting to learn about Mandela’s life and how he grappled with the compromises inherent in leadership.
  5. For more on this see Cheryl Frank Ch. 6


  • Nina Subramani

    The best article I’ve read on Mandela today. Gives us much to think about. Thankyou.

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  • Jules Bywater-lees

    A refreshing article and I think it sums up the legacy we have all inherited.

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  • Alex Lenferna

    Thanks for the kind comments folks. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Corey Helf

    “Befriend your enemies”, can we do this?
    Forgiveness– One never knows how loyalty is born.
    We must embrace our former adversaries, before we can advance.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, thank you, for your thoughtful article and inspiration! There simply has to be a way! :-)

More in FEATURE, UNFCCC Bonn - June 2013 (4 of 4 articles)