Home > What Could Possibly Go Right? Interview Series > Episode 22: Kumi Naidoo: A Broken Economic System, the Power of Intersectionality, and Why Giving Up Is Not An Option

November 10, 2020

Kumi Naidoo is recognized internationally as a forceful advocate for human rights, gender equity, economic justice, and environmental justice. A seasoned activist in South Africa during its struggle against apartheid, his long career of deep commitment to people and the planet has included serving as Executive Director of Greenpeace International and as Secretary General of Amnesty International. 

Kumi’s current roles include Professor of Practice, Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University; Global Ambassador, Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity; Visiting Fellow, Oxford University, and Honorary Fellow, Magdalen College.

Kumi shares his thoughts on What Could Possibly Go Right? including:

  • That we need to reassess how we measure wealth as GDP, a broken system for measuring the value of people and work.
  • That we suffer from affluenza, “an illness where we have come to believe that a meaningful, prosperous, decent, dignified life comes from more and more material acquisitions.” and that climate change “is fundamentally a problem of consumption and inequality”.
  • That activism needs humility and to “listen more to people on the ground”. Instead of appealing to those in power, activists should support the powerless to speak for themselves, whose “voices bring an urgency that only those that suffer an injustice can bring, with the kind of eloquence, power and passion that makes it hard for the media, policymakers and those in power to ignore.”
  • That we need more genuinely democratic systems across the world with a fair chance to run for office, instead of displaying only “the form of democracy without the substance of democracy”.
  • That the analogy of the spider and the starfish shows the strength of decentralized versus centralized forms of organizing and mobilizing.
  • That understanding the biggest contribution we can make to the cause of humanity is “not giving your life, but giving the rest of your life,” with perseverance, stamina, and courage to see those injustices dislodged.
  • That it’s not good for mental health for us to see injustice and not express it and to bottle it up inside of us.
  • That even “the pessimism of our analysis can be overcome by the optimism of our action”. 

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About Kumi Naidoo

A seasoned activist in South Africa during its struggle against apartheid, Kumi Naidoo has never lost his broad vision, a deep commitment to people and the planet, and his capacity to catalyze communities and movement for justice across issues, sectors, and borders.

At the age of 15, Kumi became an anti-apartheid activist. He was deeply involved in neighborhood organization, youth work in his community, the underground movement, and mass mobilizations against the apartheid regime. His anti-apartheid activities led to his expulsion from high school.

In 1986, Kumi was arrested and charged for violating the state of emergency regulations. Facing imprisonment, he was forced to live underground for a year before fleeing South Africa to attend Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He remained in the United Kingdom until Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. Upon his return to South Africa, he began working on the legalization of the African National Congress (ANC). During the democratic elections in 1994, Kumi was one of the official spokespersons of the Independent Electoral Commission and directed the training of all electoral staff in the country.

Kumi became the Founding Executive Director of the South African National NGO Coalition (SANGOCO), an umbrella agency for the South African NGO community. Provoked by the fact that South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women, Kumi helped organize the National Men’s March Against Violence on Women and Children in 1997.

After stepping down as Secretary General of Amnesty International in March 2020, Kumi continues to serve in an honorary capacity as Global Ambassador for the Pan-African civil society movement, Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity.

He is a founding chair of the Campaign for a Just Energy Future and is a patron of Future SA, which both advocate for accountability and an end to corruption in South Africa. He has served as Executive Director of Greenpeace International, Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Board Chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), President of the Global Call for Climate Action (GCCA), and Board member of Shared Interest and the Thembani International Guarantee Fund. He also served as Board member for 350.org, the Global Greengrants Fund, and as an Ambassador to the Southern African Faith Communities Environmental Institute. Kumi currently serves on the International Council of Transparency International.

Kumi Naidoo is recognized internationally as a forceful advocate for human rights, gender equity, economic justice, and environmental justice.

Connect with Kumi
kuminaidoo.net | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter


Download the transcript here.