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From social to green activism

From living in exile to leading the world on climate change today, the first South African head of one of the largest environmental organisations in the world has come a long way.

delhi Updated: Nov 20, 2010 23:56 IST
Shalini Singh

From living in exile to leading the world on climate change today, the first South African head of one of the largest environmental organisations in the world has come a long way.

Kumi Naidoo completed exactly a year as the executive director of Greenpeace International when HT spoke to him on November 16.

“Time flies,” he said over the phone from Amsterdam getting ready to leave for Delhi the next day. Naidoo was in the Capital for a CEO round-table to discuss sustainable business practices in information and communication technology sector, given the urgent need to ‘go green’ in these times.

Forty-five-year-old Naidoo became part of South Africa's liberation struggle at 15. It was also the age when his mother committed suicide.

“That was definitely a life-changing time for me. It was also when there was tremendous turbulence in the country.” Naidoo became active in neighbourhood organisations and mass mobilisations, and as a result of his anti-apartheid activities he and his younger brother were expelled from high school for their “leadership roles”.

“It was a turning point — I had to educate myself. The experience forced me to become an independent thinker."

In 1986, he was arrested and charged for violating the state of emergency regulations. Naidoo went underground for a year before fleeing to live in exile in England. During this time he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and earned a doctorate in political sociology. After Nelson Mandela's release in 1990, Kumi returned to South Africa to work on the legalisation of the African National Congress.

Naidoo has also been at the forefront of civil society movements. From 1998 to 2008, he was the secretary general and CEO of CIVICUS, a world alliance for citizen participation, which is dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.

How does he look at the notion of civil society in today's context of armchair activism?

“Defining civil society is tough. It's that space between state, market and individual. It has a watchdog function, holding government accountable. A feminist once aid civil society is like pornography. It has no definition but when you see it, you recognise it! One very visible manifestation is that people take pride in action for a public good, and quite often the ones driving this are the middle-class.”

“My origins are Indian. My family is linguistically Telugu and Malyalam, I know how to read Tamil — my mom made sure I did!” he says. His ancestors came to South Africa in 1860 as indentured labour to a ‘promised world’. “Some went back later and a lot of them died.” Naidoo's culinary habits stand testimony to his origins. “I eat curry and rice everyday and I can cook south Indian food,” Naidoo says proudly.