Interview: Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace

For him, it is one of the defining battles of our age; it’s a fight for sanity against the madness of a mindset that sees the destruction of the Earth. The South African national still goes right to the heart of the kind of world he wants; the one which we want to pass onto our children, the one which protects our environments.

Kumi Naidoo was born in 1965 and grew up in Apartheid South Africa. His family, of Indian working class, had been forcibly resettled along with thousands of others to a township about thirty miles outside of Durban, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Growing up with an image of Gandhi on the wall, in a violently discriminative society, Kumi remembers his belief at the time that “environmental activism is the privilege of the rich.” It wasn’t until the 90s that he “started to realize that environmental issues cut across all other issues.”

As a boy of just eleven, a series of protests against the Afrikaans Medium Decree – led by around 20,000 black high school students – marked Kumi’s memory of the Soweto uprising; one year later, anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was murdered while in police custody; two years after that, in 1979, the newly-formed Congress of South African Students protested the death of Solomon Mahlangu, who was hanged for involvement in the African National Congress (ANC). Exposure to these historical turning points, all contributed to the development of Kumi’s radicalism and strong sense of justice. And all the while, he kept close Nelson Mandela – a political prisoner at the time – as a huge source of inspiration:

When he said that “the struggle is my life,” I realized how powerful and true his statement really was. The struggle to eradicate climate, gender and social injustices takes a lot of time and effort. As Mandela put it: The struggle for justice is a marathon, not a sprint.

Observing his country’s social upheaval and learning from the strong, anti-apartheid revolutionaries of his time, Kumi became what he describes as “a full-time activist.” He was expelled from school numerous times, for organizing opposition to the apartheid, he became a community organizer, was arrested and charged for violating the state of emergency, and for civil disobedience. Nevertheless, he says, “my brother and I made a pact that we would give our lives to the struggle.”

Police harassment eventually led to Kumi having to go underground. For fear of imprisonment, he went into hiding for a year, before making his move to England in 1987. A handful of South African professors had encouraged Kumi to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, to get him out of the country. On the day he heard he had been accepted onto a political sociology course at Oxford University, his home was raided. And, for the next four months, until he fled to England, he was on the run.

On arriving in the U.K., Kumi remembers:

It was a big culture shock. The night I arrived, I slept for 12 hours and was woken by a knock on the door. When you are on the run, you become very sensitive to knocks on doors. But here was a lady offering me breakfast. And I remember it had snowed overnight.

He spent four years in exile there, but his opposition to the injustice of governments, however, did not cease. Kumi was still heavily involved with several student anti-apartheid organizations; his thoughts fixed on South Africa. He remembers:

To be honest, I did not know much about Oxford. I was twenty-one years old and standing trial for violating the state of emergency.

After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, Kumi returned to his homeland to work with the ANC and found the South African National NGO Coalition (SANGOCO). He continued to fight for justice, for what he sees as the basic human rights of all men, women and children.

From 1998 to 2008, Kumi acted as the Secretary General and CEO of Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation; an organization dedicated to strengthening civil society thought the world, and became the founding chairperson of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty. It was here that Kumi’s attention turned to environmentalism. He recalls how his beliefs about South African race discrimination and global injustice came together:

Apartheid affected one country but challenged the world. This is about the future… For some, like the Turkana people in northern Kenya, the tipping point has already come. It is so unfair that the poor will pay for climate change with their lives.

Kumi had developed a new goal; he now pushed to ensure that the concerns of poor countries are heard when the rich ones plan the future. Poor countries, particularly in Africa, are expected to be the hardest hit by climate change; though they have contributed little to the pollution that created the phenomenon.

Having first been exposed to Greenpeace in 1985, Kumi now decided to apply environmentalism to his career. While listening to a radio broadcast as a young man, he had learned of the sinking of the NGO’s “Rainbow Warrior” ship and the murder of photographer Fernando Pereira. The event weighed on Kumi’s mind, but it wasn’t until years into his anti-apartheid work that it finally clicked:

I understood that the struggle to end environmental and climate injustice and the struggle to end social and economic injustice are two sides of the same coin…

Because of that growing consciousness and experience in various environmental organizations, Kumi was invited by Greenpeace to apply for the position. His daughter, he says, was the motivating catalyst in his application. She was in London and had seen Kumi on the television. Her father was on the nineteenth day of a hunger strike and looking frail. She said, “Dad, go for it. Greenpeace is about the future. It talks and it acts.” And she was right.

Soon after, Kumi was appointed as part of the board of Greenpeace Africa and simultaneously chaired the Global Campaign for Climate Action (GCCA), working to get CO2 emissions under control, protect rainforests, and replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. He is now also among those who argue that industrialized nations that got rich from environmentally dangerous technology – like nuclear power or oil drilling – now have a responsibility to help poorer nations cope with climate change. Still, Kumi uses civil disobedience – law-breaking – where he deems it necessary, justifying his actions by commenting that:

Governments, sadly, are unlikely to change as fast we need them to unless they are pushed.

Since 2009, Kumi has been the Executive Director of Greenpeace and a huge inspiration to justice seekers all over the world. His roots in the Global South are vital for addressing the massive challenges that those areas will be faced with as the planet heats up. Kumi’s determination to achieve every of his mission won’t come to an end, and neither will his belief that: “Injustice will carry on until decent men and women say enough is enough.”

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