His Story
In Conversation
Creating a Portrait
A Crusader:
"Struggles only move forward when decent men and women step forward and say, ‘enough is enough and no more.’"
To the End of the Earth
Profile of an Icon
Kumi Naidoo
“The triple jump is about aiming high, not long. You want to stay up there, get as much hang time as possible.” Kumi Naidoo glides the palm of his hand through the air, tracing the trajectory of the perfect triple jump. He’s describing how he used a broken chair as a hurdle to stay committed to attaining height over distance.
Profile of an Icon
Kumi Naidoo

“The triple jump is about aiming high, not long. You want to stay up there, get as much hang time as possible.” Kumi Naidoo glides the palm of his hand through the air, tracing the trajectory of the perfect triple jump. He’s describing how he used a broken chair as a hurdle to stay committed to attaining height over distance. An empty chip packet marked the takeoff point; the school couldn’t afford to leave the marker board in place. It’d be stolen, used for firewood. But neither the distance of the jump nor the standard of the school’s pit mattered to Naidoo. He practised the triple jump because the meets provided an open platform to mobilise the youth against the apartheid government. Under the South African state of emergency Naidoo was a marked activist. He was 15.

Naidoo has mastered the art of effective communication. He gesticulates with expansive sweeps, leans forward to make the sternest points, and uses both hands to draw one leg over another to leverage statements of defiance. He’s always in motion, dark eyes dancing, continually refining the drama of the rhetoric. And he chuckles a lot. The projection of the Kumi Naidoo persona is imposing, mesmerising, like a Zeppelin passing a banner across the sky. His message is eloquent, considered, provoking and ladled with intellect. The man locks you in. It’s easy to understand how he manages to incite an infinite mass to rise against impossible odds and tyrannical statute.

Naidoo makes good, it’s a career choice. He is a human rights activist and the current International Executive Director of Greenpeace, the international environmental agency. It could have gone the other way. He could have been a gangster. Naidoo grew up in an anarchic, violent neighbourhood. A beguiling honey-trap to a disadvantaged and impressionable teenager itching to badger authority.

“We were good boys, we never got into trouble,” Naidoo says. It’s irony from a man whose name has been synonymous with civil disobedience from the day that he realised that he lived in a disparate world of social injustice. The boy didn’t look to get into trouble – he was drawn to instigate it. The young Naidoo decided on being a burr in the tight knit of apartheid. It was an impassioned spark that illuminated his life’s path as a warrior of social activism.

Precious time before attending the first student demonstrations, his mother committed suicide. Naidoo wonders how she would have coped with his political activism, the continual police raids, harassment and imprisonment that followed. By 1986 he was underground, sleeping in cars and on beaches, on the run, doing whatever it took to resist the apartheid system through mass mobilisation and civil disobedience.

“Most weekends were spent burying friends and comrades,” he says. It was said that if you got involved in the struggle, the assumption was you’d end up dead, in detention or in exile. A professor urged Naidoo to avoid the inevitable by applying for a Rhodes scholarship.

Naidoo’s narrow focus on the struggle steered him from paying too much attention to the selection process. He signed the application forms with little regard for the outcome. When he received news of his shortlist interview in Cape Town he looked to the opportunity as a free trip to strategise with fellow struggle cadres. Imagine the surprise when received news of winning the scholarship.

He called home to share the news. “They said don’t come back home, the army has raided the house, everybody is on the run.” It was a sign. The time for running the gauntlet was over. The young man withdrew into exile and his studies to earn a doctorate in Political Sociology at Oxford University.

After Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990, Naidoo returned home to work on the legalisation of the ANC and acted as the spokesperson for the Independent Electoral Commission during the 1994 elections. But political affiliations soon gave way to his drive to attend to the social injustices that nagged his attention.

Perhaps it is the influence of his late mother that has steered Naidoo from standing before the lecterns of politics, poking damning fingers at the sky, making idle promises. He is a man of action who takes the stand for he who needs the voice of resistance most.

“My mum shaped who I am today,” he says. “She taught us to see God in the eyes of every human being we meet, that we should look for the weaknesses within ourselves and the strengths in others, it’s much better to try and fail than to fail to try, and it’s much better to be honest and unpopular than dishonest and popular.”

Clichés of maternal counsel, perhaps. But who cares, Naidoo took the advice to heart and has leveled towering obstacles to change in the process. He organised South Africa’s first National Men’s March Against Violence on Women and Children and is an eternal champion of women’s issues and gender equality. No matter the platform – environmental, non-governmental or voluntary organisation – Naidoo dedicates a portion of his time to gender equity. To him, the notion of democracy is futile without its presence.

As the head of Greenpeace, Naidoo has combined social and environmental activism. He believes that the two are not mutually exclusive. “Greenpeace is trying to work for a world where humanity lives in balance with nature. Climate change destroys the livelihoods of millions of people.It makes the poor even poorer. Striving to avert catastrophic climate change and taking up the struggle to end global poverty can be two sides of the same coin,” he says.

Think Greenpeace and associations of daring protest against oil rigs, coal plants and whaling ships spring to mind. Naidoo says that he’ll never be apologetic for using peaceful, non-violent action or civil disobedience to advance environmental and social justice – “History shows us that it is how change happens,” he says.

But Naidoo’s leadership is steering Greenpeace towards a more holistic approach to campaigning. The messages no longer focus on an impending apocalyptic doom. Instead, the new campaigns are calling for broad policy change and an energy revolution – a vision of renewable energy in the future.

He believes that a primary concern that needs addressing is our view of global challenges as stand-alone issues. It’s a blind spot that prevents decision makers from making the connection between environmental justice and poverty eradication. Naidoo leans forward and scoops his hands to gather his leaden statement.

“We find ourselves inside of a perfect storm. It’s a convergence of crises – the food price, fuel price and the poverty crisis which takes the lives of 50 000 people every day.” To Naidoo, the climate crisis and the financial crisis are inextricably linked. To treat them otherwise is plain stupid.

In June 2011, Kumi Naidoo spent four days in a Greenlandic prison after scaling an oil platform as part of Greenpeace’s ‘Go Beyond Oil’ campaign. Before scaling the rig, Naidoo said that he was calling on the rig’s owner to halt drilling, and would request a copy of the rig’s oil spill response plan. Most generals send their soldiers to the front line, preferring to operate from a strategic point of safety. Not Naidoo. He climbed the oil platform to make a stand for his beliefs. It’s a trick he learnt while practicing the triple jump – the higher you aim, the further you go.

Play video
In Conversation
Kumi Naidoo discusses with filmmaker Adrian Steirn his belief that questioning the status quo is the fundamental expression of democracy, how his mom, who committed suicide when he was 15, had exerted the influence to shape him into the person he became, and why he has confidence in his choice of causes he supports.
A Portrait
A series of behind-the-scenes images reflecting the 21 Icons team at work.
Naidoo stands defiantly upright in a Zodiac surrounded by nature, for which he fights each day to preserve on a global scale. The image speaks of a man who would go to any extreme to stand up for what he believes in. The Zodiac, often associated with Greenpeace activists, is a reference to his current role within the organisation as International Executive Director.