Kumi Naidoo
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Visionaries - May 3, 2022

Kumi Naidoo: The Activist who Fought Apartheid at 15 & is Putting Big Oil in Check

Kumi Naidoo is a South African human rights campaigner and the first African to serve as the International Executive Director of Greenpeace’s international environmental organisation.

He spearheaded global efforts to alleviate poverty and preserve human rights after fighting apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s through the Helping Hands Youth Organisation.

Kumi served as the Secretary-General of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and Civicus, an international civic engagement coalition. Also, he founded the Global Call for Climate Action, massively coordinated protests in support of climate discussions, and connected human rights organisations, labour unions, scientists, and others.

For more than three decades, Kumi Naidoo, the Executive Director of Greenpeace, pioneered human rights, social justice, and environmental advocacy.

His Struggle with Apartheid

Kumi Naidoo was born in Durban, South Africa, in 1965. At the tender age of fifteen, he became a member of the Helping Hands Youth Organization – an affiliate of the South African Youth Congress. He was also an active voice in South Africa’s liberation war.

As a result of his anti-apartheid activities, he was expelled from high school. As a child activist, he organised school boycotts against South Africa’s apartheid educational system.

He was also active in the neighbourhood organisation, community youth work, and anti-apartheid mass mobilisations.

However, his activities were affected by the Apartheid government’s declaration of a State of Emergency. This made Kumi a target for the Security Police. Due to this, he was detained several times and accused of breaching anti-mass mobilisation, state-of-emergency, and civil disobedience laws.

He finally went underground due to police pressure before escaping to the United Kingdom in 1987. In 1985, he earned a BA in Political Science with honours from the University of Durban-Westville. While in exile, he earned a degree in political sociology at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.

In 1990, he took a break from his studies at Oxford and went to South Africa to promote literacy and canvas for the legalisation of the African National Congress.

This occurred following Nelson Mandela’s release from jail and his determination to run for President of South Africa.

Naidoo’s Political Achievement

Kumi Naidoo was the founding executive director of the South African National NGO Coalition (SANGOCO), whose mission is to guarantee that civil society traditions continue to serve South Africa’s people.

He also served in various leadership roles in education, development, and social justice programs.

Roles include the 1997 National Men’s March Against Violence Against Women and Children, the adult education NGO sector, and the 1994 Independent Electoral Commission’s official spokesperson (IEC).

In 1994, he presided over the country’s first democratic elections and continued to serve on the Association for Women’s Rights in Development board.

In 1998, Kumi served as the Secretary-General and Chief Executive Officer of Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation until 2008. 

He also served as the Global Council co-chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty since its operation in 2003.

From 2009 until 2015, Kumi was the International Executive Director of Greenpeace and the first African to lead Greenpeace, an international environmentalist organisation.

To eradicate poverty and safeguard human rights, he spearheaded worldwide sensitisation in different positions, including as the Ninth Secretary-General of Amnesty International, until December 2019, when he stepped down due to health issues.

A Radical Environmentalist

Kumi Naidoo became a member of Greenpeace in 2009. Naidoo was drawn to Greenpeace because of its dedication to direct action and civil disobedience. He regarded his position as an alliance builder and a change agent.

To him, the complex relationship between environmental justice, women’s rights, and human rights is interrelated. It drew criticism from Western-born environmentalists who regarded environmentalism as a separate cause.

Since he assumed the office as the executive director, he became active. In the Arctic Ocean region, Naidoo was actively involved in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against Shell and Gazprom’s desire to drill through the melting ice.

In 2011, as part of Greenpeace’s “Go Beyond Oil” campaign, Naidoo was imprisoned for four days after scaling an oil platform owned by Cairn Energy.


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He was extradited to Denmark and held in Danish custody for a brief period before being released in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

In 2012, Naidoo and a handful of Greenpeace volunteers took Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya oil rig in the Pechora Sea for 15 hours.

He is a strong critic of organisations such as the World Economic Forum for failing to propose a system re-design instead of “system recovery” and “system protection and maintenance.”

He also used the World Economic Forum to spread environmental messages to corporate executives and policymakers and fight for green business practices and energy sector development.

This was evident in 2013; while he was with the world’s wealthiest elites at the World Economic Forum, Greenpeace demonstrators were blocking a Shell gas station just outside the Swiss alpine resort, demanding that the oil company abandon its plans of oil exploration in the Arctic.

As an enthusiastic environmentalist, Naidoo is a consistent attendee at United Nations climate conferences. He calls for more sustainable government goals to reduce emissions and aggressively transition to a renewable-energy-based sector to help humanity escape catastrophic climate change.


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