When Kumi Naidoo was 15 years old, he began making his way to the frontlines of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. A student in the city of Durban, he was kicked out of high school and thrown into jail several times for protesting against racial segregation, until he eventually went abroad to study as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in England. Returning home after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Naidoo helped the African National Congress win democratic national elections in 1994, turning a new page in South African history.
After that, Naidoo shifted his attention to global campaigns for education, women’s rights, poverty alleviation, and environmental conservation, where he finds himself again on the frontlines of a major movement today as executive director of Greenpeace International, one of the world’s best known and most vocal environmental groups.
Now 47, Naidoo has always been a fan of direct action. A couple examples: Shortly before taking his current job with Greenpeace in 2009, he joined Archbishop Desmond Tutu and hundreds of other activists on a 21-day hunger strike to support the democracy movement in Zimbabwe. In August of this year he and a Greenpeace team climbed a rusting oil platform in the Arctic to protest against an energy company’s drilling plans. In this interview, Naidoo tells us how he stayed motivated while getting hosed down with freezing water during that environmental action, what he learned from living through apartheid, and why he believes anything is possible.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I'd love to spend the day with my daughter in my hometown of Durban, in South Africa. It would be a beautiful sunny day, and we would take a hike through the nearby Drakensberg Mountains, a UNESCO heritage site. This is a place where you can find Bushmen paintings and it is exquisitely beautiful in terms of flora and fauna. On the hike, we would see people riding horses, lots of people hiking, and many small animals and snakes.
We would cook something vegetarian and spicy in the evening—probably spinach and potato curry—and catch up. My daughter is 20 and I don’t get to see her often enough; we usually meet at least once every couple of months.
If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
I was recently in the Arctic, but I hear the underwater biodiversity is mind-blowing and we still don’t know a lot about life in the deep waters there, so I’d like to go back to explore that, maybe in the Chukchi Sea west of Alaska. Recently, scientists published findings describing the largest-known oceanic algal bloom in the world, and that could be an interesting site. This sea is navigable only four months a year, and you can also find polar bears, whales, and walrus there. But I’ve only ever done one diving training session and it didn’t go so well, so I’d have to prepare better this time around.
Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
It's difficult to go past my hometown. It's where I grew up, where I have my fondest memories of starting out as a young activist. It has changed quite a bit over the years, but most of my friends and family are still there. I think it’s always the people that make a place special.
Our cities are no longer racially segregated in the formal sense, but sadly the old racial demarcations of apartheid largely stay the same. Nevertheless, Durban has a beautiful coastline, culturally diverse people, amazing cuisine, and close proximity to the mountains. I go back there about twice a year.
If you could have lunch with any adventurer, explorer, or athlete, who would it be and why?
It would be Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt—I admire him because he comes from a humble background and he has excelled. He also wants to be a positive model, especially for youth. As a former 100- and 200-meter sprinter, I truly admire Bolt for being the fastest person ever.
What's something you can't travel without? And why do you need it?
I can't travel without my laptop. I constantly use it and need it to stay in touch with people around the world. Unfortunately I can’t simply unplug and stop checking emails. I am always connected. I check my email for work four times a day.
When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
Finding a power outlet and charging up. I always use travel time to catch up with my emails, read materials, and so on. However, every time I get to a new place, I try to take a walk and familiarize myself with the surroundings. Increasingly I try to stay with friends, family, and colleagues when I’m traveling. Hotels have become places that confirm your solitary existence.
What motivates you in your work as an environmentalist?
Two things: First, an incurable optimism. It’s not too late to change the future of our world and ensure a future for generations to come. Second thing is my past. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, being jailed at the age of 15, and finally bringing change proved to me that even the most brutal regimes and systems can be changed for the better. Nothing is impossible.
As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
I'm very fortunate to be able to do my dream job right now, at Greenpeace: be the voice of millions of supporters, seeking to change the way humans do things on the planet. As I child I didn’t know I wanted to become an environmentalist—I knew I wanted to contribute to a better world, but that was framed more in the context of human rights and poverty. The dream is to create a world that is more just, more sustainable, more participative, and more equal. It is not only environmentalists and activists that contribute to this, but also progressive business leaders, religious leaders, and so on.
When and how did you first venture into your field of work?
Living in the South Africa of apartheid we were exposed to many social injustices every day. It's experiencing that kind of injustice first hand that really ignites a fire of passion in many belly. I was not able to go some beaches because they were whites-only beaches; I was not able to go to certain public facilities, such as cinemas and sports stadiums.
I was one such person, and began to join and work with a number of local activist groups. We did everything from spraying slogans on public institutions when Mandela was in prison, to marches. However, because of the repression, we had to be creative: We came up with this thing called a motorcade, where 50 activists would put the same poster on their car and drive into the center of the town. We weren’t breaking any law, but it was still an organized protest.
My sense of righting wrongs continued to grow, and I guess that's how I ended up where I am today.
What's one piece of advice you would give to a young environmentalist?
Activism is not the privilege of a select few—it is the responsibility of us all, and especially of the young generation. Activism is a lifestyle choice. Eating less meat, biking to work instead of driving, and putting pressure on corporations to change and for governments to pass environmental laws are rights we can all exert through purchasing and voting behavior, as well as by joining various movements and organizations.
People should first embrace the idea of reuse, recycle, and reduce. We live in a world where a few people consume excessively and the majority of people have too little. We always have to think about ways to reduce our carbon footprint, and there are many ways in which you can do that.
People have to send a clear message to politicians, saying we can’t change the science and we have to change the politics and show political will. Some people say politics has become so stuck that it’s not worth it to vote in elections and so on. I have sympathy for this view, but I feel that we have the responsibility to breathe more life into failing democracies around the world, and while it’s hard to ensure that politicians actually do what they are supposed to—and often voting appears to be a meaningless enterprise—it’s important that citizens do not give up on the formal electoral process. The challenge is not to just vote for the politicians who support a more socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable way of life, but also to try making political systems more inclusive and democratic. If you look at a country like the U.S., you can say that this is the best democracy money can buy, with numerous lobbyists hired by the coal, gas, and oil industries to prevent progressive legislation on Capitol Hill. Changing politics in Washington is a huge undertaking, but it needs to be done.
If people want to get involved, they should start in the communities where they live and work in, as quite often they can find existing organizations they can join. Greenpeace is a source of important information but also options for actions and engagements—I should confess, this is not an entirely unbiased opinion. Young people particularly should look at organizations such as 350.org and others doing really great work.
My final advice for young people is to not wait for leadership from adult politicians. Step forward today, because our current leaders are denying the dire reality we are facing. Leadership can come from everywhere.
Have you ever had any role models or mentors? Describe the most influential and what he or she taught you.
I always return to the “activist canon” as I call it—those exemplary leaders from times past, including legendary names like Mandela, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Gandhi. I first learned about Mandela when I was 15 years old and I was involved in my first protest against the unequal education system in South Africa. From then on I started learning about the struggles of people in other parts of the world, such as Gandhi and others.
Most of us are not like them, but we all play a small part, even if results are not always immediate. What these models taught me was that change is possible if people are committed; change is possible if people believe in change.
Do you have a life philosophy?
We all have the power to change things around us. It's something that we humans can do in small and big ways every day—if we commit to it. The barrier for many people is not believing they have the power to make a difference.
Have you ever made a mistake or experienced a near accident that made you think twice about pursuing your activism efforts?
There have been times when my determination as an activist has been challenged, yes. Just a few months ago, during an action in the Arctic, I was part of a group of Greenpeace volunteers trying to send a message to companies such as Gazprom and Shell: drilling in the Arctic is madness. So as part of the action, I was hanging by an oil rig and Gazprom workers were spraying water at me, and for a moment, I was thinking that joining the action was not the best decision I could have made—it was very cold, and I was wet and incredibly uncomfortable.
But more than a million people who supported the Save the Arctic campaign then (now we have 2.25 million supporters) gave me the energy and determination to continue. We all made it back safe to our ship. Due to increased public scrutiny on companies that are trying to drill in the Arctic, more and more business and political leaders are agreeing with us: the Arctic should be left alone.
If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
It’s very difficult to see myself doing something other than what I am doing now. I would still be an activist. If I were not an environmentalist, I would fight for gender equality because I believe that men should realize they will never be fully free until women, too, experience full equality. Problems such as violence against women and children need to be fully addressed.
Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
I'd love to learn how to use some of the newer, hip social media platforms and connect more meaningfully with the very young generations—especially social media platforms that allow sharing ideas and stories in real time.
I would like to convince the financial sector to stop supporting the fossil fuel industry.
And, finally, I'd love to live long enough to see a world where the planet and its people are put before profit and power.