The Biography of Kumi Naidoo: A South African Activist


Kumi Naidoo is a lifelong environmental and social justice campaigner. His activism interest thrived at the age of 15 when he organized and took part in anti-apartheid protests, which landed him an expulsion. It was from them that he became deeply embedded in activism in his local community, organizing and mobilizing protests against the apartheid regime. At the age of 21, the state had charged him with violation of state rules. He lived as a fugitive for a while before the Nelson Mandela movements liberated the country.

The Early Life of Kumi Naidoo

Kumi is a south African nationality of Afro- Indian descendent. He was both in Durban, South Africa, in 1965, where he spent most of his early life. His father worked as a bookkeeper and also ran local soccer and cricket associations outside their home. Kumi’s mother died when he was 15 years old after committing suicide. The 52-year-old attended Oxford University, where he graduated with a Ph.D. in Political Sociology.

Kumi Naidoo Secretary General of Amnesty International speaks at the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Kumi had a total of three siblings. When he came of age, he married and got two children, a boy and a girl. As an activist, Kumi’s life was not a walk in the park. Often, he engaged in confrontations with authorities who were always looking for him.

Starting as a child activist, Kumi stood in solidarity with groups protesting apartheid rule. He co-founded the Helping Hands Youth Organization, led global campaigns protesting against poverty and violation of human rights. Following his unending desire for activism, he became the ninth secretary-general of Amnesty International. However, he left the post in December 2019 because of health-related concerns.

Between 2009 and 2015, Kumi became the first African to chair an International environmentalist group, Greenpeace. He also served the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Call for Climate Action. The latter unites environmental aid, religious, human rights groups, labor unions, etc.

Kumi as a South African Activist

During the apartheid error, Naidoo got arrested occasionally. It all roots back to when he was a teenager. The guy landed in trouble after taking part in anti-apartheid protests. He was expelled from school. As he came of age, he joined mass mobilization groups. One time he had been arrested for civil disobedience and violating the state emergency. This resulted in him having to go underground before living in exile in England.

Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director Greenpeace International.
Kumi Naidoo, Geschaeftsfuehrer von Greenpeace International (GPI).

In 1990, Kumi called off his studies in Oxford and returned to South Africa, where he conducted literacy campaigns after Nelson Mandela’s prison release. At that time, Mandela had decided to run for the presidency. Like many South African-born Indians, Naidoo noted that the completion of his doctorate was of significance. He would be the first Indian activist from South Africa to earn a doctorate from Oxford. Kumi was the founder and Executive of the South African National NGO coalition.

His Time in Exile

When the apartheid regime sent Kumi into exile, he found himself touring the United States and England. This allowed him to pursue a Ph.D. in political Sociology, widening his thoughts on sociopolitical matters.  The latter earned a doctorate when he returned to England from South Africa.

Voluntary Activism

In 1990 after Mandela was released from prison, Kumi decided to return to his country. Intending to give back to South Africa, he led adult literacy campaigns and worked on the legalization of the African National Congress. Amid his voluntary works in 2009, this is what he said:

“It is obvious that a lot of corporations and governments do not listen and put power and profit over people, ignoring what is in the best interest of humanity. It is becoming increasingly difficult to get their attention. But one thing that we know that works is civil disobedience and peaceful protests. Every act of rebellion, no matter how seemingly insignificant, adds up.”

Kumi also participated in other Organizations like the Africans Rising for Justice Peace and Dignity, Earth Rights International, member of the leadership council, Transparency International, member of the advisory board, and a member of the women rights in development association. Those sum up the groups Kumi has been part of in his life as an activist.

The Global Civil Society

As an activist, Kumi believes that the only way the people can get appropriate treatment is through civil disobedience and peaceful rallies. The civicus period, Greenpeace period, and Amnesty International period all were part of the civil society, which Kumi participated in.

The Civicus Period

From 1998 to 2008, Kumi was the Secretary-General and Chief executive officer of the Initially Washington-based Civicus World Alliance for citizen participation. He dedicated the action to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. At the same time, Kumi served as the Global Call’s founding chairperson to Action Against Poverty.


The Greenpeace Period

Kumi Naidoo became part of Greenpeace in 2009 after his daughter Naomi persuaded him to take up the role. The main reason why Naidoo joined the organization was Greenpeace’s commitment to direct action and civil disobedience. Naidoo saw his role as the executive director of Greenpeace as an alliance builder and transition agent. Most of all, he saw the connections between environmental justice, women, and human rights as all being interconnected.

Being part of Greenpeace, Naidoo occasionally participated in peaceful civil disobedience against Shell and Gazprom, who planned to drill in the Arctic’s melting ice. In August 2012, Naidoo and Greenpeace volunteers staged peaceful strikes at Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya oil platform for 15 hours. The previous year around June, he spent four days in Greenlandic prison after scaling an oil platform owned by Cairn Energy.

The officers deported him to Denmark, where he spent a short time before being set free in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Naidoo is a famous critic owing to his outspoken nature. He has condemned bodies like the World Economic Forum for failing to go past system recovery, protection, and maintenance.

Naidoo communicates environmental messages to business leaders and politicians through the World Economic Forum and lobby for green business practices. Amid the World Economic Forum in 2013, while Kumi met for friendly conversations with the world’s wealthiest elites, Greenpeace activists had blocked Shell gas outside Swiss mountain, demanding it to drop its ambitions to drill oil at the Arctic.

On regular occasions, Naidoo attends United Nations climate meetings and endorses high government ambitions to control emissions and encourage renewable energy forms. Such forms of energy are environmentally friendly and prevent climate change.

In 2015, Naidoo quit the post of International Executive Director. While leaving his position, this is what he said:

“When I leave, I am anticipating an even more significant role with Greenpeace as a volunteer. It was unfortunate that Naidoo’s resignation came after rumors of the organization suffered budgetary crises.”


The Amnesty International Period

In December 2017, Amnesty International appointed Kumi Naidoo as its secretary-general. A year later, around August 2018, Kumi succeeded Salil Shetty to become the new Amnesty International and Secretary-General. The latter is the post for the primary spokesperson for Amnesty International.

In 2019, Amnesty International announced a hole in its budget worth 17 million euros. Kumi Naidoo reported to the staff that 100 employees would lose their jobs as part of the liberation process to solve the situation. Unite the Union; United Kingdom’s best trade Union stated that the problem was because of the overspending by the organizations leading team.

The Amnesty International financial crisis had become a public concern the previous year when Gaetan Mootoo, a sixty-five-year-old researcher, committed suicide at Amnesty’s Paris office, leaving a note that blamed the management for work pressures with no support. It happens that Gaetan’s case is merely the tip of the iceberg. A vast number of employees had been dealing with so much suffering.

Amnesty had become an organization where the staff is seen as indispensable. And it was unfortunate none of the team was ready to staff up and raise their concerns. The freedom amnesty bosses have entirely unacceptable after no one held Amnesty’s managers responsible for the poor working conditions and overspending, a team of workers petitioned for Naidoo’s resignation.

It was not long before Naidoo resigned from Amnesty International, citing health complications as his reason. Before his resignation, he stated that then was the time when the organization needed a fit secretary-general who could see through its mandate with vitality the mission the universal human rights deserved.

Kumi Naidoo’s Honours and Awards

As a great activist, Mr. Naidoo gathered awards to honor his works. In 2017, the Durban University of Technology awarded him a doctorate. Two years later, he also received honors in a doctorate from the University of Johannesburg.

In 2014, Kumi got an award for engaging in peaceful activism. The latter is an act most protestors do not always emulate. More so when angered about something. And most of all, South Africans selected Kumi among the 21 icons of the country, honoring Nelson Mandela’s legacy.


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