Address by Nelson Mandela at launch of Final Report of World Commission on Dams

16 November 2000


Friends, honoured guests. It is a privilege to receive this Report, Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making. But to comply with the Commission's emphasis on truth, accuracy and transparency, I must confess I have already received a copy before now. At the same time, because of the Commission's strictly enforced embargo, I was not allowed to read it until yesterday morning.

This presented an issue of time. I knew that the work details comprehensive evidence of the most visible, complex and pervasive human undertaking over the last century in 452 pages. Yet Kader forbade me to speak until I had read the entire report cover to cover. He assured me I could skim through it in "just one sitting. " Which was true. Of course, little did I know that "one sitting" was the extensive journey between Cape Town and Cabot Hall...what you may call my "long flight to freedom."

We are here today, in large part, to answer: Who really needs the work of the WCD? Who is their Report written for? There are some who may say it can only target a very narrow readership, a few thousand specialists in their fields, at most.

Yet I, for one, am no expert. I have no degree in civil engineering. I am not an environmental scientist. I do not shape or analyse water policy. Nor do I follow the global economic or financing trends in large-scale infrastructure projects. During my life, and legal career, I devoted almost no time or attention to impacts of large dams. And Robben Island had no rivers. No music of fresh waters lulled us off to sleep.

Yet upon reading this Report I know exactly what is at stake, why it speaks so deeply to me, and how it can help all of us resolve potentially explosive tensions together.

For it involves the careful use of our collective life support system, the rivers entrusted to us as stewards of God's creation. In quiet, reflective moments -- rare during my active struggle, all too plenty during confinement -- I recalled very well the clear, cold streams that I grew up with around Qunu and Umtata in the Transkei region of South Africa. These sustain the health of our bodies and of our spirits.

I remembered, after a circumcision ritual, washing away my youth in the Mbashe River, and, later, crossing it as a man. Our clean flowing rivers must be known by my grandchildren's grandchildren, many years from now, just as I knew them as a child, many years ago.

Does my quiet, bucolic childhood seem picturesque in hindsight, especially from this crowded city? I assure you it was not so romantic, or free, back then. All the water we used for farming, cooking and washing -- to develop our families and sustain our health -- had to be fetched in buckets from the streams and springs. It was tedious work for children, like me, and more often, for women like my sisters and mother. We paid the monthly water bill with our backs, our sweat and our time. Each day, hours that were used to draw and carry water, just to keep from falling behind, were hours stolen from time that could be devoted to learning or earning just to get ahead.

I note passages in the report, about social inequity, that struck a darker, all-too familiar chord. For I know something about the struggle to ensure the primacy of human rights. I know something about mounting resistance and using civil disobedience against a system that treats you as less than a person. I know about the impotent rage that rises when your house is razed, your neighbourhood uprooted, your family forced to live elsewhere because the State has decided, without asking those affected, what is in the greater common interest of all.

I know about the need to transform a society so that the needs of those who were on the margins of political power, excluded from decision-making, can be placed at the heart of policies that affect the lives of all. That transformation speaks closest to my heart.

Many millions of us have stood on one side, the outside of state decisions. Yet it is one thing to find fault with an existing system. It is another thing altogether, a more difficult task, to replace it with an approach that is better.

I learned this lesson not long after becoming president in my country's first free, democratic and non-racial election. Our largest city, Johannesburg, was growing faster than rows of mealie in the field. Unlike older cities -- like London, Paris, Cairo, Baghdad, Delhi, Moscow, Kinshasa or St. Louis -- Johannesburg was not founded upon the banks of a flowing river; it sprung from the banks of diamonds and gold. In an arid region, it is nowhere near a large river. Which meant that we had to bring water to the people from the closest viable source.

That source sprang from the highlands of neighbouring Lesotho. We needed more water for Johannesburg; Lesotho needed electricity for its rural peoples. To do so, one answer was one of the most significant water development projects in the Southern Hemisphere. It meant authorisation of, let its name be whispered, another large dam.

Knowing the controversy and complexities of such an undertaking, I happily let my good friend Kader Asmal work out the details. I let him negotiate the political minefields and legal challenges. He sought the best options and approach, taking into consideration environmental, financial, social, and economic impacts. Which he did with his usual high calibre of excellence? Then I joined him in a ceremonial event, to proudly inaugurate the Lesotho Highlands Project as a -- No, not as a "monument to the democratic State," as some leaders might say, nor as a "temple of doom," as critics may call it. But as a dam - a means to an end - which as one option among others, emerged as our best option under the circumstances, nothing more, or less.

Was it our best tool? Were other options overlooked? Perhaps. We were elected to take hard decisions, under pressure. I believe ours was the right choice at the time. But no one knew for sure. There is a part of me, and I believe of Kader, who resented having to choose the lesser of two evils: Relocate some so that all may have water, or forgo a dam, thus slowing human development and increasing urban stress.

It is difficult to be inside of the process, making decisions that would affect the lives of millions and for decades to come. One's mind may turn to prayer, seeking divine intervention, or to mankind, seeking guidance from a World Commission such as this.

Which reminds me of a story. When I was in prison for my beliefs, a white minister with a dry sense of humour once teased us: "The white man has a more difficult task than the black man in this country. Whenever there is a problem, we have to find a solution. But whenever you blacks have a problem, you have an excuse. You can simply say, "Ngabelungu." That is a Xhosa expression, which means, "It is the whites."

His implication was that it has been easy to blame all of our troubles on a faceless system, the crown; the church hierarchy; globalisation, multi-national corporations, the Apartheid State. It is no hard task to place blame. But we must look within ourselves, become responsible and provide fresh solutions if we ever want to do more than complain, or make excuses.

It is a lesson we learn daily. Our democratic struggle for freedom and independence, our minds and bodies and hearts were focused on one thing, political liberation, the right to express and govern ourselves, through the principle of one person, one vote. But the moment we voted for the first time, the instant we won that coveted political freedom, we collectively sacrificed a freedom of another sort: freedom to blame others, to make excuses, to let decisions make our decisions, to shrug off our human responsibility that expands in direct proportion with our human rights.

Taking responsibility is not a question of principle, but of survival. In developing nations, like mine, we know that political freedom is priceless; it is worth risking ones life for. But freedom alone is still not enough if you lack clean water. Freedom alone is not enough without light to read books at night, without time or access to water to irrigate your farm, without the ability to catch fish to feed your family.

For this reason the struggle for sustainable development nearly equals the struggle for political freedom. They can grow together, or they can unravel each other. Threats to our governments in the century ahead will not come from fascism or communism, but from poverty. Poverty threatens democracy as much as a coup d'etat.

So how do we develop to eradicate poverty? Some say large dams offer solutions. Others say large dams create problems. The Commission, to its credit, says neither.

It simply distils the evidence of the performance of dams in the past, in which dams, on balance, have delivered significant benefits for the many. But the overall performance and impacts of dams presents us with a more complex and often bleak picture, especially for the unspoken minority, and for nature.

But unlike many critics of dams, the Commission is not quick to point fingers. For it recognises, in calm prose, that while there must be greater accountability, it is too easy, and not too productive, to simply blame the industries that build, the governments who authorise, the agencies who fund, and the engineers who design the large dam. In the past, I could paraphrase that Robben Island minister, that these powerful decision-makers may have had the more difficult task.

In the past, whenever there is a problem of water or energy, they were the ones called upon to provide a solution. Protesters, could always point to unhealthy rivers, social inequity, debt burdens and say "Ngalamadami" - Xhosa for "It is the dams!"

But that is not so. It is not the dams. It is the hunger. It is the thirst. It is the darkness of the Alexandra I knew as a law student. It is townships and rural huts without running water, lights or sanitation. It is the time wasted gathering water by hand. There is a real, pressing need for power in every sense of the word. Rather than single out Ngalamadami for excessive blame, or credit, we must learn to answer "Sithi sonke!" or "It is all of us!" All of us must wrestle with the difficult questions we face.

And this Report is our answer, for those who wrestled together for more than two years wrote it. The World Commission on Dams wrestling match, as trying and testy and painful as it was for them, saves time, energy, sweat and money for us. They aged so that we would not have to.

Allow me to use one last saying from Xhosa: Ndiwelimilambo enamagama. It means: "I have crossed famous rivers." Both literal and figurative, it means that one has travelled a great distance, had wide experience, and gained some wisdom from it.

I once thought of this in the context of my own long life. I had, since birth, crossed important rivers in my own land: the Mbashe and the Great Kei, on my way to Healdtown; and the Orange and the Vaal, on my way to Johannesburg. I still had, and have, many rivers yet to cross, as do we all, no matter our age, country or expertise.

I now think of it in the context of the extremely short life of World Commission on Dams. Today marks your end. But since your birth you have crossed many rivers for me, for us, for future generations, for leaders now in office. You have crossed the Orange and the Zambezi. You have crossed the Nile and the Indus. You have crossed the Ganges, the Tigris and the Euphrates; the Yellow and the Mekong. You have crossed the Amazon and the Parana. The Columbia, the Glomma and Laagen, the Danube, the Rhine and the Volga. The Yangzte. The Colorado. The Murray-Darling and the Congo.

You cross these rivers not at their source, where the stream's force is weak shallow, trickling and undefined, but at their confluence, where they are most powerful and treacherous. Many thought these forces would make you vanish beneath the surface.

As we see today, you did not sink. You waded, plunged in, learned to negotiate the rapids together, as one group. Now you have crossed, and stand warm and dry on the opposite bank. You beckon to those of us who still hesitate on this shore. You reassure us through your example, your voice and your work that: "Yes, the river is cold, and deep, and wide. But by stepping here, and standing there, and balancing like this, and bracing against the current like that, we, too, can also make it across."

At the end of your journey, through this Report, you have shown us the route, and extended a hand, the only firm grip in sight. As there is no standing still, and no turning back, let us now reach out, grasp it, and cross the river together.

I thank you.

Issued by: Ministry of Education

Source: South African Government Information Website