Mandela on and off stage
Two instructions came in unexpectedly both with huge impact.
Firstly, President Nelson Mandela was to be our guest for World Environment
Day (WED). Secondly, we had to organise everything. Everything. We soon discovered it was not a "day", but a whole week full of special events.
For the first time the United Nations chose South Africa for WED celebrations of global importance. The surprised host was the national department of Environmental Affairs, 1995. Yes, 23 years ago.
I remember it as clearly as yesterday. We strongly went for the opportunity. When, at the end, we saw the international media component off at the airport, an Australian journalist declared it was the best WED that he had ever attended.
There were two speakers at the main event on 5 June - president Nelson Mandela and Elizabeth Dowdeswell, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep). Here were two outstandingly unique persons together on stage, but with the most contrasting life histories.
She was a university lecturer, served as minister in the Saskatchewan government of Canada, later entered their national government as deputy minister for the environment. On the international stage she impressed, especially in negotiations for shaping the Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In 1992, Dowdeswell was unanimously appointed as executive director of Unep, at the very high rank of Under-SecretaryGeneral. Later she became LieutenantGovernor of Ontario. Her work ability was demonstrated by her 1 066 official engagements during the first 18 months in this post, 711 per year! She had the ability to engage with people and listen to them, later conveying openly what she had picked up. She was dubbed "Storyteller-in-Chief".
I admit that I had fears on how our new president (a deprived prisoner for 27 years) would shape in the company of visiting international specialists, both on and off stage; with live global television coverage all the time.
Our country's top representative, in contrast to my worries, entered on stage, with gravitas shining forth immediately. He read his speech (basically compiled by officials) slowly, but clearly. He even proved that he had made it his own with a few original, personal comments.
Madiba stated that South Africa shared the concern of the global community for the health of Planet Earth. "We fully understand our enormous responsibility to preserve a local biodiversity matched only by the rain forests of the world." Also off stage, during informal exchanges, we could hear how authoritatively the president conversed with the international VIPs.
He was much more of an informed environmentalist than I had ever expected!
Dowdeswell spoke learnedly on interconnected themes of sustainability, environmental stewardship, inclusive economic prosperity with social and cultural inclusion.
"The international community, thus also Unep, shared the special occasion in South Africa with humility and joy". She also used words that stayed with me ever since: "Sustainable development can only be achieved by caring human beings.
“Those who hope to heal the earth must join with those who hope to heal the souls of our fellow human beings."
At the time being referred to, Prof Hanekom was Deputy Director-General for Environmental Affairs. His column "Our World / Ons Wêreld" appears in the George Herald every second week.