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'I dare not be quiet': What climate activist Ndelika Mandela learned from her granddad

Ndileka Mandela, the eldest of Nelson Mandela's grandchildren, during her Zoom interview with NPR. A climate activist, she had spoken at COP28 earlier in the week, the climate summit, and returned home to Johannesburg to mark the 10th anniversary of her grandfather's passing.
Screenshot by NPR
Ndileka Mandela, the eldest of Nelson Mandela's grandchildren, during her Zoom interview with NPR. A climate activist, she had spoken at COP28 earlier in the week, the climate summit, and returned home to Johannesburg to mark the 10th anniversary of her grandfather's passing.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the passing of Nelson Mandela. His activism against apartheid sent him to prison for 27 years. After that system of racial segregation came to an end and Mandela was released, he went on to become president of South Africa.

Today, he is survived by 17 grandchildren. The eldest is 58-year-old Ndileka Mandela, a former ICU nurse leads the Thembekile Mandela Foundation, which focuses on health, education and youth development in South Africa's rural villages.

This week, she traveled to Dubai for the U.N. climate conference COP28 to participate in a panel entitled "Strategies in Climate Financing; Empowering Sustainable Development in Africa." She called for an end to "climate apartheid" — a term she's using to jar people into action to help countries in the Global South who she says are unfairly burdened with the impacts of a changing planet. But she says it's also a phrase that implies there's a way out of the morass — just as apartheid was overcome in South Africa.

The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

Say more about climate apartheid. What does it mean?

During apartheid, the South African government used their power and privilege so that the economy benefited a minority group, the white people, at the expense of the majority — the people of color.

Today, the richest countries are the biggest polluters of our climate. They benefit financially. About half the world's population lives on less than $7 per day. Most of these four billion people live in the Global South and they're the ones who are most impacted by climate change. The Global North discriminates against the Global South, and we bear the consequences.

For instance, in Africa, we've had floods in Tanzania. Six people have died at the last count. We had hundreds of people die last year when we had floods in South Africa.

So you're describing a situation where the Global North has created most of the greenhouse gasses contributing to climate change. But it's the Global South that's feeling its impacts disproportionately, despite having contributed relatively little to causing climate change.

Yes, that is correct.

Of course, countries in the Global North are also experiencing climate impacts with flooding and droughts and sea level rise.

Certainly they will be impacted. This is a global crisis. You can't run away from the catastrophic effects of climate change. However, the Global North has more financial capacity to mitigate some of those things where the Global South doesn't.

But instead of criticizing or pointing fingers at each other, let us find solutions to mitigate climate change globally.

I mean, climate change is upon us. It's not waiting on who's to blame. It doesn't care who caused it.

Ndileka Mandela, granddaughter of the late Nelson Mandela, after speaking at a "Freedom Movement" rally in 2017, which called for then president Jacob Zuma to step down over corruption allegations. He resigned in 2018.
/ Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images
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Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images
Ndileka Mandela, granddaughter of the late Nelson Mandela, after speaking at a "Freedom Movement" rally in 2017, which called for then president Jacob Zuma to step down over corruption allegations. He resigned in 2018.

But the term "climate apartheid" does seem to point the finger at the Global North. So in the spirit of coming up with solutions, why use this label?

It jars people to act.

Similarly, at the height of gender-based violence in South Africa, a phrase was used among those involved with the #MeToo movement — "men are trash."

It did not mean that all men are trash. But it jarred people. Terminology like this can draw sharp attention to a topic that is a crisis.

The phrase "climate apartheid" is not about blame. I believe it will help us sit around the table and come up with solutions.

What sorts of solutions do you envision?

For instance, at COP28, they've pledged a loss and damage fund of hundreds of billions of dollars. This money is a step in the right direction. It's still not enough, but it's a start.

In addition to the financing, the Global South needs expertise, advice and a road map to develop and use renewable energy. We want to become less reliant on the things that cause climate change like coal and oil.

What qualities did you learn from your parents, and how have you leveraged them in your battle against climate apartheid?

From my mother, I learned how to be content with what I have, how to stay in my lane and mind my own business.

My dad died when I was four. But my grandfather took on the role of my father in every way. With him, we were not his grandchildren.

From him, I learned that you need to be cognizant of the suffering of other people. You can't be an island. That's why climate change bothers me so much. I've somehow managed to stay insulated from the worst effects of climate change, but my fellow neighbors in other cities and other rural areas are suffering.

That's why I dare not keep quiet. If my grandfather had kept quiet about the injustices committed against our people, we wouldn't be where we are today. He and his comrades catapulted us into a democratic South Africa.

Anti-apartheid leader and his wife Winnie play with their grandchild Bambata. Mandela's oldest grandchild, Ndileka, is an activist who's calling for an end to what she refers to as "climate apartheid."
/ Walter Dhladhla/AFP via Getty Images
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Walter Dhladhla/AFP via Getty Images
Anti-apartheid leader and his wife Winnie play with their grandchild Bambata. Mandela's oldest grandchild, Ndileka, is an activist who's calling for an end to what she refers to as "climate apartheid."

Are you surprised that there is "climate apartheid," or is this just the way the world works, unfortunately?

I'm not surprised. The rich always suppress the not so fortunate. It's sad to watch it happen.

But we have got to change it because it doesn't serve humanity when the haves suppress the have-nots.

When there's enough wealth to go around, there's no need for the developing world and the Global South to have abject poverty and unemployment.

As intractable and oppressive as apartheid was, ultimately, it went away. A new system replaced it. When you use the words "climate apartheid," perhaps you're also invoking this idea that we don't have to live like this, that there could be a different way, and that it too may one day go away.

Absolutely. There's absolutely a different way.

At some point, we didn't think that we would win the war against apartheid, but we did. It was almost a century-old regime that we were able to dismantle.

There was the Berlin Wall. I'm sure the people of Germany at some point didn't believe that the wall would fall. But it did fall because of the concerted effort of people not giving up.

So we need to have that same spirit now. We will win against climate apartheid as well.

Why are you confident that we will win?

I believe that with concerted effort and a lot of hope and positive energy, we can achieve a lot.

Just take my grandfather. This is a man that was incarcerated for life on Robben Island. And yet, the hope that he and his comrades had that they would be released one day was inside them from the moment they were imprisoned.

When my father died in 1969, seven years into my grandfather's incarceration, he wrote letters to various people. The letters that really resonated with me were those he wrote to his other children, telling them that he looks forward to the day that he will be released and be able to hug them.

They never lost hope. They never lost that positivity.

What we forget as humanity is that the words that we use have energy and power. If you state things in a positive manner, the universe will always conspire to assist.

Alternatively, we will be dead in the water if we don't have hope. We'll all be decimated.

So I believe that we need to have that hope that our forebears had to dismantle the shackle of climate apartheid.

What do you think your grandfather would have said about climate injustice?

In the Eastern Cape, there used to be trees and birds. And Granddad used to lament how he misses those days when the bees were plentiful, when they would go and get honey, which is organic, instead of just sugar.

So I know that he would have put his shoulder on the spoke to talk about what needs to be done to turn the tide on climate change. He would have met with people of influence and those with expertise.

I have no doubt that he would have been fighting right beside me.

Is there anything from your upbringing that gives you strength?

In the African context, especially in my Xhosa culture, we have the basic principle of "ubuntu" — that is, "I am because we are." It means that I am who I am not only because of my individual efforts, but because of a collective effort. It stresses the importance of sharing what we have as a community with groups who are less fortunate.

However, we now live in a world that is completely selfish. It's me, me, me... not the greater good of other people.

If we can go back to the basics of ubuntu, I think we can turn the tide against what we see today. No person is independent. We inherently need other people.

Is your last name a blessing or a curse?

It's a double-edged sword.

Oftentimes, my family and I get measured against my grandfather. For some people, my grandfather was a sellout because he should have done this or that, forgetting that all leaders lead within a certain context.

And at times, it's a blessing because of the credibility and legacy that he built. That's one reason why we're having this interview. When I speak, people listen. When I sit in front of certain leaders asking for assistance for my foundation, they assist me, whereas another person would battle to get that traction.

Are you doing anything to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of your grandfather's passing?

My grandfather used to host Christmas parties where he had Christmas gifts. And there would be a big feast. When he started doing that, most of the children in the neighboring village had never had Christmas presents before.

But at some point, people from all over the country wanted to come. And when they opened the gate, people rushed forward and there was a stampede. It became uncontrollable. They had to stop having the parties.

So yesterday [Tuesday, Dec. 5, the day of Mandela's death anniversary] we revived that practice where we chose children from the villages that had an impact on his life. There were rides, a jumping castle, quad bikes and also gifts and cakes for Christmas.

That's how I commemorated him.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.
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