Address by Nelson Mandela on receiving the Planet and Humanity Award during the International Geography Union (IGU) Regional Congress and General Assembly, Durban

4 August 2002

President of the International Geographic Union
Esteemed Members of the Union
Our International Visitors
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

It is with a special sense of humility that we stand here to receive this Planet and Humanity Award.

We are aware of how much correspondence and interventions it took to finally secure our presence here this afternoon.

We need to indicate that the efforts it entailed to finally conclude the discussions about our participation had nothing to do with an unwillingness to accept this prestigious award or an attitude of playing hard to get, as the colloquial saying goes.

We ourselves as well as our office long ago indicated to our Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology that we would be extremely honoured to receive the award.

The vagaries of leaving official office and having to establish home as an unemployed pensioner contributed to the uncertainty of not knowing where and in what condition one would be when the event comes around at last.

Employed people and those in office can never imagine how chaotically unscheduled the lives are of those who find themselves in the idleness of retirement and pension. We are very happy that out of that chaos our office could contrive to have us here at this most prestigious event and occasion.

I am a simple country boy and I remain astounded and overawed by the awards and honours that people for some incomprehensible reason decide to bestow upon us.

A colleague of mine often asks me how it is that I remember so distinctly people I have met, dates on which events had occurred and the details of occurrences. My consistent and truthful reply to him is the following: I am a simple country boy, unacquainted with all of these marvellous and strange things of the world. Every time I encounter people, things and events they remain indelibly stuck on my over-awed mind.

This evening will be such an occasion that I will never be able to forget. And it is, furthermore, an occasion that takes me back to concrete memories of and present day knowledge about my origins as a country boy.

When I go to the place and area of my birth - as I often do - the changed geography of the place strikes me with a force that I cannot escape. And that geography is not one of mere landscape and topography; it is the geography of people.

Where once there were trees and even forests, we now see barrenness. I can no longer walk those distances but until a few years ago I would traverse the miles of land I knew as a child and young man. And one was saddened at the poverty of the people, poverty lived out in the geography of the place.

It is the geography of women and young people walking miles and miles to find the paltriest pieces of wood for fires to cook a measly meal and to keep a shelter warm. The trees and forests were destroyed exactly because poor people were so dependent upon them as sources of energy. And, in turn, people are today cold and in want of energy for cooking, cleaning and basic comfort because the trees and forests are destroyed.

I walked and I saw in the land of my youth women walking - but walking in poverty and destitution. The streams of my youth that were places of beauty and inspiration were now clogged up and dirty. I saw the descendants of the mothers of our people bowing down to secure with their bare hands the cleanest of the dirty and dangerous water in those streams and pools.

How would they get that water clean enough to use it for household purposes, I often asked them. They would boil it, they replied, if only they had wood or other sources of energy to do so.

The alternative seemed clear. Use what they had, and suffer the consequences. And the consequences were and remain cholera and other environmentally induced diseases.

These conditions I have seen repeated all over our country, our continent and the developing world.

We accept the honour you bestow upon us today not as an honour in the usual sense of that word. We accept it as an acknowledgement of our common lack of honour as humanity for the manner in which we are destroying our Mother Planet and the chances for our children to have a sustainable future on earth.

Your award is, however, also a source of encouragement to take up and continue the struggle for a world in which we can live in dignity not only amongst ourselves as human beings, but also as human beings in relationship with our natural environment.

South Africa will soon be hosting the all-important World Summit for Sustainable Development. That your Union gather here now is part of the challenge to our country, its leaders and its people to be seen to be in the vanguard of the modern-day struggle to render our environment a liveable and sustainable one for our children.

I try to live by the simple precept of making the world one in which there is a better life for all, particularly the poor, marginalised and vulnerable.

A devastated geography makes for a devastated people. It renders people vulnerable; and the traditionally vulnerable - women, children, the aged and disabled - will always be bearing the brunt of that suffering.

Let us stand together to make of our world a sustainable source for our future as humanity on this planet.

I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation