The most influential South African you’ve never heard of. Yet.
- Branko Brkic
- 18 Nov 2009 02:32 (South Africa)
He might just possibly have become the most influential South African in the world - Kumi Naidoo. Who? Until last month he was the head of Civicus, an international civil society advocacy outfit, but he has just become the head honcho of Greenpeace, the worldwide environmental campaign to protect endangered species and ward off global warming.
Greenpeace? Yup, the group that is famous – or infamous, depending on your culinary preferences - for chartering those boats that sail in dangerously close to big commercial whaling ships (euphemistically called research vessels by the Japanese or Norwegians) to prevent the seaborne slaughter of oceanic leviathans. Okay, maybe they taste good, but that’s a whole other story.
Greenpeace got its start with a small bunch of really committed environmental activists trying to halt American underground nuclear tests off the coast of Alaska almost 40 years ago. The tests might have harmed endangered sea otters. Okay, maybe some other things too. Regardless, Greenpeace has come a long, long way since it was throwing a protective embrace around some cute fur-covered, aquatic Alaskan seafood lovers.
Naidoo is really new in the job and he confesses he still has a lot to learn about Greenpeace’s action agenda – a roster of good things to do that ranges from protecting whales and trees to stopping nuclear tests and toxic dumping. But he says he’s already on the same page on big stuff like global warming, a growing concern for Greenpeace.
WATCH: Greenpeace video introducing Kumi Naidoo as its new International Executive Director
Speaking to reporters after his appointment as Greenpeace’s head was announced, he said, “We either get it right and all of humanity comes out on the other side with a new world, or we get it wrong and all the world is going to sink.” Well, everyone needs an apocalyptic agenda.
While he was at Civicus, Naidoo was involved in global campaigns on dealing with poverty and human rights, including the Global Campaign for Climate Action, an effort that tried to bring environmental, aid, religious and human rights groups, labour unions, and scientists together for protests, demonstrations and other creative forms of public action on global climate protection. Why such a Sisyphean task? He wanted to change the fact that, as one of his long-time comrades-in-arms, Tasneem Essop says of him, “Previously, environmentalism was seen as [something] for the privileged few.” Or, Naidoo himself put it, “If the whole planet is under threat…what's the point of not addressing that and saying we'll do other development work?”
Naidoo came to Civicus, and now Greenpeace, from the core of citizen activism against apartheid. Naidoo joined anti-apartheid student protests and the non-racial sports movement as a 15 year old. After being arrested in 1986, he went underground for almost a year before heading off into exile. Eventually Naidoo got his doctorate in political sociology at Oxford.
In 1990, he came home to pick up right where he left off. He became spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission and trained electoral staff. Kumi joined Civicus in 1998 after a time as a founder and leader of South Africa’s National NGO Coalition. And then, just a couple of months ago, he made a media stir with a month-long hunger strike to protest Zimbabwe’s continuing human rights abuses.
What kind of organisation is he heading up? Greenpeace activists recently dumped 18 tons of coal in front of Swedish government offices to pressure European countries to close coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile, in Britain they captured the front pages after scaling the walls of parliament to wave flags and hang banners from the roof, protesting carbon emissions and urging a national investment in renewable energy. Why do these kinds of things? Well, as Naidoo says, “Governments, sadly, are unlikely to change as fast we need them to - unless they are pushed”.
Photo: Three Greenpeace activists at their best, chasing Norwegian whalers. REUTERS
And you can bet Greenpeace is going to be in Copenhagen next month for the global climate festivities when our leaders are going to try to hammer out some sort of greenhouse gases agreement. The goal is to keep the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps from melting and giving Johannesburg some badly needed beachfront property – or stopping every last Maldivean citizen from exile in Australia.
And Greenpeace’s position on Copenhagen? Well, as Naidoo says, “Anything short of a binding treaty in Copenhagen must be read as a failure of leadership on the part of the political class…. the science is clear. We have to change the politics. If we can't change the politics, then we have to put our energies into changing the politicians.” Now that’s work for a lifetime.
Naidoo brings to his newest job an established international network of likeminded people from an advisor to the Clinton Global Fund, a member of various UN panels and with the World Economic Forum, as well as with more-grassroots-like groups such as the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP) campaign (www.whiteband.org). And this writer remembers him as a behind-the-scenes facilitator with the NGO Forum that ran a week of raucous sessions, demonstrations, agitations and high concept, advocacy art from people from around the globe, in tandem with the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg half a decade ago. Naidoo is only just coming into his position as the head of Greenpeace, but it is clear he’ll be leading Greenpeace in aggressive efforts to address the impact of climate change on the world's poor.
Barely into his new job, Naidoo has already reached out to criticise Barack Obama, saying that Obama no longer shows the fierce urgency about the fate of the planet he had spoken about so eloquently during his election campaign. In fairness, to imagine a conversation between them, perhaps Obama would excuse himself by noting that the ongoing global economic meltdown, war in Afghanistan, troubles in Iraq, nukes in North Korea and Iran, trade troubles with China, and health care reform in America all seized most of his attention first – although Naidoo might well respond that none of these will matter much in the long run, if the Earth’s winter starts to feel like summer on Venus.
Undeterred, Naidoo does say, “During his [Obama’s] election campaign every single speech that he gave, he talked about a planet in peril, referring to climate change. We all understood that he 'got' it.” But Naidoo laments that Obama and others have already said it would not be possible to reach a real deal at Copenhagen, and that Obama has yet to say he will join this summit.
Commenting on this shift for Greenpeace, the BBC says Naidoo’s appointment indicates a real shift in focus within Greenpeace from hugging whales to wrestling global climate change. Or, as Naidoo explains: “We are seeing, every year now, 300,000 more people dying from what can be described as climate-related impacts. We're talking about climate refugees connecting all of those existing focuses on the environment with human concerns, it is the right thing to do.”
By Brooks Spector
FACT BOX -- GREENPEACE
- Aims: Defend the natural world and promote peace through action
- Funding: Donations from individuals, grants from foundations
- Membership: About 2.8 million worldwide
- Background: Whether pursuing Japanese whaling ships across Antarctic seas, demonstrating against logging in the Amazon or storming oilrigs in the North Sea to protest against global warming, Greenpeace activists grab headlines around the world. They have made a fine art of using high-profile media events to exert pressure on politicians and big business.
- Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter believed in what he called the "media mind bomb" - reaching the public consciousness through dramatic, photo-friendly opposition to perceived environmental crimes. Greenpeace UK's executive director, John Sauven says this kind of “direct action” is key to the group's overall lobbying effort.
- Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver, Canada, to protest underground nuclear testing. It now has 27 national and regional offices and claims a campaigning presence in 41 countries. It receives no direct funding from governments or business, adding to the sense it is an independent voice.
- Branko Brkic