Kumi Naidoo is a South African human rights activist and previously the International executive director of the international environmentalist group Greenpeace. He was the first African to head the organization.
He is the launch director of Africans Rising, a pan-African movement of people organizations, working for peace, justice, and dignity. After battling apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s through the Helping Hands Youth Organisation, Naidoo led global campaigns to end poverty and protect human rights. He has served as the secretary-general of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty.
He was secretary general of Civicus, an international alliance for citizen participation, from 1998 to 2008. Recently, he has led the Global Call for Climate Action (tcktcktck.org), which brings together environmental, aid, religious, and human rights groups, labor unions, scientists, and others, and has organized mass demonstrations around climate negotiations.
Born in Durban, South Africa, Naidoo became involved in anti-apartheid activities when he was 15, resulting in his expulsion from high school. He was involved in organizing, youth work in his community, and mass mobilizations against the apartheid regime. During the apartheid government, Naidoo was arrested several times and was charged with violating provisions against mass mobilization, civil disobedience, and violating the state of emergency. This led him to go underground before finally deciding to live in exile in England.
During this time he was a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford and eventually earned a Ph.D. in political sociology. Naidoo’s doctorate, however, was earned in the late 1990s, after he returned to England from South Africa. He suspended his studies at Oxford to return to South Africa in 1990 to conduct literacy campaigns after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and Mandela’s decision to run for president of South Africa. Naidoo, like many South African-born Indians, identifies himself as a black South African. He noted that the completion of his doctorate was essential given that he was told that he was “the first Indian activist” from South Africa to earn a doctorate at Oxford. In this edition of The Big Interview, Sainey MK Marenah talks to Dr. Naidoo about rights issues and related matters.
You have been an activist all your life advocating for better lives for people. You put so much energy into your advocacy to a stage you go on hunger strike. Why?
I have been an activist in Nelson Mandela’s movement from the age of 15. I believe that injustice is not normal and the people of Africa are experiencing many challenges that places tremendous hardships on the people of Africa and globally because we have an unjust and brutal economic system that serves far too little people at the upper end of society. I have done two hunger strikes in my life and believe that if history teaches us anything, it is that when humanity faces a major challenge or injustice, those struggles only moved forward when decent men and women said we are prepared to engage in civil disobedience to have the appropriate impact. Hunger strikes and other forms of civil disobedience draw attention to the injustice being addressed and show that people care enough to put their lives and bodies on the line.
You have recently been appointed the launch director of Africans Rising. Tell us about this movement and your involvement.
Africans Rising is a pan-African movement composed of civil society movements from across the continent and the diaspora. We aim to build solidarity between all African peoples from below and beyond borders through a united African peoples movement to challenge our leaders in our fight for justice, peace, and dignity for all our people. I was the volunteer launch director for the movement up until its launch on May 25th, African Liberation day.
During the peak of the political crisis in The Gambia after former President Jammeh refused to step down, you were among a few foreign activists who visited Banjul and there were concerns about your safety. What motivated you to risk your life and visit The Gambia to negotiate the departure of Jammeh?
The spirit that the people of The Gambia had shown in the time after the election was incredibly inspirational and moving. They showed a determined resilience and a strong will in the face of repression. As Africans Rising, it was important for us to support the will of the Gambian people and to show them that the whole continent is behind them. During my time-fighting apartheid in South Africa, I know how much African solidarity can mean to those in the struggle. It gives you the strength to carry on knowing that our brothers and sisters are watching you and supporting you.
The Gambia is one of the members of the Africans Rising Movement, what plans do you have for the country and what role can The Gambia play in making the African Rising initiative a dream come true?
The Gambia has a very important role to play in Africa today. The peaceful transition of power from a violent dictator to the election of Adama Barrow has given The Gambia and its people a very special opportunity to set an example for the rest of the continent. Civil society in The Gambia must now continue on this trend of speaking out against abuses of power and impunity. The Gambia is a youthful country; we need the youth to step up and start to run for elected office. There is no time to waste on this front. Gambians must ensure that they never again have to live through another Jammeh-like regime. The Gambia has the possibility now to set an example for good governance and equality.
Desertification and land degradation are particular concerns in Africa. Are they getting enough attention in international discussions of sustainable development?
The problem with these two issues is that they are not cataclysmic media events such as hurricanes and cyclones; they are slow moving and we only see devastating consequences of this climate change impact once it is too late. While there are attempts to address desertification and land degradation, it is insufficient, lacking in political will, and is even in some cases embroiled in corruption.
Can Africa become more than a bystander in the international discussions on climate change?
Yes, we can and yes we should… and yes we must. Africa is already facing significant climate impacts which are eroding our food security, water security, and more. Therefore Africa must be more than a bystander in climate negotiations and we should do this together with progressive elements in the so-called developed countries and particularly with others in the global south. We need to see the political will from our leaders to enact policy that will give Africans a fighting chance to combat climate change. Civil society in Africa is willing to stand with our leaders at global forums if they act with urgency, honesty, and purposefulness.
Do African governments need to pay more attention to their people?
Africans Rising’s main goal is to bring together people from all countries in Africa, to support each other’s struggles; we need to present ourselves as a unified front when governments do not pay attention to the people’s aspirations. As it stands now we can see many governments acting only in the interests of their families, friends, and business associates, to the detriment of the people who have elected them and who have put their faith in their leadership. We also need to encourage young people to get actively involved in public leadership. They should refuse to accept the idea that young people are the leaders of tomorrow…if they wait for tomorrow there might not be a tomorrow!!! And given the demographic realities of our continent – Africa is the youngest continent with the oldest leaders.
What are Africans Rising to do after the launch and what next in terms of building the pan-African movement of the people?
Africans Rising, as a young and new movement, is now planning its first elections for a continental board. We have already held a five-week leadership programme called the Activists-in-Residence Programme. We are also trying to build the movement’s capacity so that it can respond to the multiple requests we are receiving. For example, we are currently involved in a solidarity mission to Togo where the government has been violently repressing groups that were protesting against the 50-year-long rule of the [Eyademas]. We are determined to make sure that the voice of the Togolese people is heard around the continent and the world.
Finally, you have seen a Gambian being hired as coordinator of the movement, what those that mean for Africans Rising and The Gambia?
Muhammed Lamin Saidykhan is a young, motivated, and dedicated activist. We are thrilled to have him join us and lead the way for this movement. He played a part in the recent Gambian revolution and he knows what it means to be an activist. We are pleased to have someone who represents the future of Africa leading our day-to-day efforts.
Editor’s Note: This interview was previously published by The Standard Newspaper.