South Africa

Our Burning Planet, Davos edition

Amnesty International’s Kumi Naidoo on climate change, populism and Xolobeni

Amnesty International’s Kumi Naidoo on climate change, populism and Xolobeni
Amnesty International's Kumi Naidoo at Davos (Photo by WEF)

Speaking to Daily Maverick from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Kumi Naidoo, head of Amnesty International, didn’t hold back. The discussion was anchored in climate change but took in the related issues of inequality, populist politics and the cognitive dissonance of the super-rich. In terms of world leaders, Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro came in for a special rollicking. It was the issue of Xolobeni in South Africa, however, that got Naidoo properly worked up.

Why was he still there?

This was a question that Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Amnesty International, had been grappling with himself. The press leading up to the World Economic Forum hadn’t been kind to the 2019 organisers, with two of the items perfectly timed for a brutal public thrashing: first, on the day before launch, the global broadcast of Oxfam’s annual inequality statistics, which showed that the planet’s 26 richest individuals now control as much wealth as humanity’s entire bottom half; second, on the morning of launch, the Guardian’s publication of a “long read” by Anand Giridharadas, titled The new elite’s phoney crusade to save the world — without changing anything.

Then, shortly after breakfast on opening day — around 11 am, 22 January — came the piece of absurdist theatre that demonstrated just how bang-on Giridharadas had been. Responding to questions put by CNBC regarding a proposal by US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that earnings above $10-million should be taxed at 70%, the head of an investment bank by the name of Ken Moelis said:

What’s going to happen to the two-workforce family? You forget where 70% starts to kick in.”

The cognitive dissonance was such that Washington Post – owned by Jeff Bezos who, as Oxfam noted, had amassed a personal fortune larger by a hundred-fold than the health budget of Ethiopia — felt compelled to have a go.

It’s hard to blame billionaires for wanting to get together and congratulate each other on their smarts,” wrote columnist Helaine Olen, riffing off the fact that Davos attendees like Moelis thought of $10-million-a-year households as working class, “but our ruling plutocrats also want to be congratulated for their unique virtue while doing so. The idea all but baked into the Davos gathering is that the elite who can afford to attend are among what was once called the best and the brightest, people who by dint of their wealth and their financial accomplishments bring an understanding of important matters, one that exceeds that of most mere mortals and voters.”

Of course, it was dupery of exactly this nature that Naidoo had spent a lifetime fighting. Back in 2009, he accepted the position as head of Greenpeace while 29 days into a hunger strike, a protest against the food shortages in Zimbabwe at the time. In 2011, he was arrested for breaching an exclusion zone and scaling an oil rig in the Arctic. A year later, he led the Greenpeace group that famously occupied a Gazprom rig in Russia’s Barents Sea.

His appetite for civil disobedience had been forged in the streets of Chatsworth during the years of high apartheid when he fell afoul of state of emergency regulations and was forced underground. And yet now he found himself in Davos, top man at the world’s largest and most powerful human rights organisation, a lanyard-wearing delegate at the very same festival of deceit that his younger self might’ve moved mountains to subvert.

So why do Amnesty and Greenpeace come here?” he asked, circling back — via the “problematic” climate change policies of Clinton, Bush and Obama — to Daily Maverick’s question. “It’s awkward, sure. You’re not going to get the kind of substantive, systemic and structural reforms that are needed. For us, it’s a double-edged sword. But there are three reasons.”

Number one, he said, “if politics is far too important to be left to politicians alone, then economics is far too important to be left to businesspeople”. Number two, “to present counter-narratives and different ways of thinking”. Number three, “the value, from an advocacy point of view, with respect to bilateral possibilities on critical issues”.

There was, however, a fourth reason, which had to do with the media opportunities, given that without dissenting voices the journalists at Davos would bore themselves and their audiences stiff.

To return, then, to the matter of cognitive dissonance. What was it about the October 2018 report out of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the one that said we had until 2030 to get our act together otherwise civilisation would collapse in a heap — that the world’s rich and powerful weren’t grasping?


In terms of scale,” said Naidoo, “we need a change that’s bigger than the industrial revolution.”

While the point was clearly obvious to him, it was equally obvious that this was Amnesty’s main conceptual challenge — hence the lack of urgency at both Davos and COP24 in Warsaw, and hence his need to drive the point home. When it came to vested interests, he explained, the transition from an economy driven by carbon extraction to an economy driven by renewables had implications not just for the fossil fuel giants but for “a range of subsidiary industries”. Also, he added, whether the person hearing it was a “CEO or rural farmer in Limpopo”, there was the problem of “catastrophic news” — despite the extreme weather events that were “now happening around the world,” the difficulty was still in the lack of immediacy, in the sense that climate change was something that would only happen down the line.

Finally,” said Naidoo, “we allow climate change to be framed as an environmental issue when in fact it is an issue that cuts across the economy, race, gender and civil conflict.”

Here, he was echoing the argument made by Naomi Klein in her Edward Said London Lecture of June 2016, a talk adapted by the London Review of Books into the influential essay, Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World. Naidoo, it turned out, had recently written something similar in Le Monde Diplomatique, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The truth,” he’d noted, lamenting the fact that the piece wasn’t celebratory, “is that in 2018 we see rising intolerance, extreme inequality and a failure by governments to take desperately needed collective actions to address global threats. We are in exactly the situation that the governments which adopted the declaration had promised to prevent. Far from being a moment of celebration, I believe we should be using this historic milestone to take stock and refocus the fight to make human rights a reality for everyone.”

The world leader mentioned first in the article was Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro, who happened to be at Davos, having been branded by the New York Times the event’s “face of populism”. In Le Monde Diplomatique, Naidoo had called out Bolsanaro for the “huge risk” he posed to the rights of indigenous peoples, the LGBTI community, black youth, women and civil society in general.

One of the difficult issues that Brazil faces,” Naidoo now said to Daily Maverick, “is that the entire world is calling the Amazon basin the lungs of the planet. When I was at Greenpeace, working with the Lula government — not that the Lula government were perfect on this issue, far from it — but we were able to show that year on year there was a reduction in deforestation rates. In 2018 the rates of deforestation shot up, immediately after Bolsanaro appeared. Bear in mind his best allies are agribusiness, and they control some of the Amazonian states.

So it is extremely worrying, there is a concern he might pull out of the Paris Agreement, which I think will be difficult. Because I think that if he pulls out of the Paris Agreement, we would lobby very hard to get them kicked out of BRICS.”

If Amnesty International or its leader had made this threat elsewhere, a Google search didn’t reveal it — Naidoo was hopeful, however, that the other nations in the BRICS bloc, most notably South Africa, would keep the Brazilian president in check.

But Bolsanaro wasn’t the only populist for whom Naidoo reserved his derision.

I’m going to push the envelope a bit,” he told Daily Maverick. “I would say Trump, Kim and some other strongmen that have emerged, Duterte and so on, tick off some of the boxes that constitute the definition of fascism.

Which is: attacking the media; attacking public institutions; the building of constituencies based on identity politics; demonising certain communities that will help you capture electoral power.”


And yet it was when we came to an injustice in the country of his birth that Naidoo, by his own admission, got properly worked up. The issue in question was Xolobeni, a village in the Amadiba region of the Eastern Cape, where an epic battle between mining rights and land rights had been sporadically flaring up since the early 2000s. As Daily Maverick reported from the scene, South Africa’s minister of mineral resources had, just the week before Davos, displayed his contempt for a High Court ruling that backed the community’s right to say no.

When we look at the Xolobeni issue,” said Naidoo, “we are talking first about cultural heritage. It’s people’s families that are buried there, it’s part of their identity. And as a society, South Africa must decide whether we respect the historical cultures of indigenous people.

Second, it’s the question of economic rights. Now we know, the world over, that foreign companies come into Southern spaces… looking for the fastest possible returns. They will make promises to the community about, ‘oh, there will be schools built, there will be hospitals built, there will be road infrastructure developed, there will be a whole range of things’. And that is part of the reasoning why sometimes governments will allow projects to go ahead, even if they have reservations from the point of view of environmental protection.

So as far as I know, similar things have happened [in Xolobeni]. How these companies and governments work is typical. Divide and rule. They go in, try and buy off the chiefs and a few other people. So long as the community is divided, even if the majority are opposed, the government says it wants to move ahead with economic development. Support it from a taxation point of view and all that.

I mean, listen, what we’ve also had in Xolobeni are assassinations. Bazooka Rhadebe — has anybody been charged with his murder? Why is there such impunity? This guy was a community leader, a simple, humble man. And he’s not the only one [who was assassinated], by the way.

So, why? I mean, basically, if the government is serious about respecting our people, before you even try to bulldoze this deal forward, show some accountability to the people who lost their lives. Because they’re rural, because they’re poor, because they’re not highly educated, does that mean their lives are dispensable?”

All of it, according to Naidoo, made a “mockery” of the Constitution.

Let me give you a quote here,” he said (as if he hadn’t given Daily Maverick a wagonload already), “if the people of Xolobeni had the same bank balances as the people of Sandton, I guarantee you, this would not be forced down our throats.”


The day after the interview, Daily Maverick tried — and failed — to confirm a rumour that President Cyril Ramaphosa, after being questioned about Xolobeni at Davos, had replied that he supported the decision of the Department of Mineral Resources to conduct yet another “independent survey” in Amadiba. What we did find, though, on the presidency’s official Twitter feed, was a fetching picture with Bolsanaro.

But politics will be politics, and “bilateral talks” will be “bilateral talks”. As for the World Economic Forum, the rich and the powerful will be back again in 2020.

And Kumi Naidoo, if the rest of us are lucky, will be back again too. DM


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