Leading the only race that counts

Feature Story - 2011-05-26
We'd like to share with you this excellent profile of Kumi Naidoo, written by Sue Blaine and published in Business Day. Reprinted here with permission.

We'd like to share with you this beautiful, well-written profile of Kumi Naidoo, written by Sue Blaine and published in Business Day. Reprinted here with permission.

Leading the only race that counts
A threat from his daughter prompted Kumi Naidoo to take the top job at Greenpeace

By Sue Blaine 
Published 23 May 2011

DURBAN-bred Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo has all but given up waiting for the US to sign up to a legally binding international agreement on climate-change mitigation.

"We all lose out, at the end of the day, if the world is not united on this, but I’ve reached a point in my own personal thinking where I believe we must encourage other nations to move forward. In the US there is a strong conservative push to keep the US apart from the rest of the world. The US and Somalia are the only countries that have not signed the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child."

Naidoo, who lives in Amsterdam , is in and out of SA as the country gears up to host the 17th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in his home town.

The US, still the world’s largest economy, refused to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that set binding targets for 37 industrialised countries and the European Community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and has made it plain it will not sign any binding agreement unless China (the world’s second-largest economy) signs first.

China’s notoriety as the world’s largest polluter, with energy demands growing hugely each year along with the country’s impressive economic growth, is no longer apt. China boosted spending on low-carbon energy by 30% to $51,1bn last year , according to Bloomberg "by far the largest figure for any country".

"Forget about the arms race or the space race, the only race that will count in the future is the green race and the winners will be the ones who are leading now. Let’s face it, the green economy will come. It may take longer than Greenpeace wants, but it’s coming. China is seriously concerned about the effects of climate change and they have made a strategic, economic calculation on this. They want to be ahead of the curve. They want to be a big player in the future."

Former US president Bill Clinton has called the shift towards a green economy "the greatest economic opportunity we have had since we mobilis ed for World War Two", and more than 700 cities inhabited by about 75-million Americans have agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions 7% from 1990 levels by 2012, but it is acknowledged that the US is losing out in this race.
"China is showing significantly more leadership than the US. The world would be better served by the US signing at Durban, but the political realities in the US … mean that what we are doing now in the US is fostering leadership from below."

"Below" means garnering support from Hollywood ― UN chief Ban Ki-moon has asked Hollywood to promote the climate change message through international film and television ― and from non-celebrities too.

Naidoo expresses disappointment in US President Barack Obama’s reluctance to push his advantage on issues such as climate change and human rights, but acknowledges Obama has a tough opponent .

Obama has not used the US Environmental Protection Agency’s endangerment ruling, a formal finding for greenhouse gas es that enables the agency to regulate six different gas es as pollutants under the Clean Air Act, to his advantage, nor has he been as vocal about human rights abuses as his election campaign promised.

"I must confess Obama’s election campaign was one of the most hopeful things for US democracy … but I have a PhD in political science. I knew how hard it would be, but Obama has not been able to deliver what he set out to do. He did not use his political capital, as he did in his health reforms, on climate change. US foreign policy is simple. Yes, it’s great to speak out about Libya, Iran, Syria, but then things are the same in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and there’s a totally different approach. Double standards are why I call Obama’s foreign policy Bush Lite."

Naidoo’s passion for social justice runs deep, and underpins his Greenpeace work. Naidoo got involved in the fight against apartheid during the 1980 student riots. He was expelled from his Chatsworth school, reinstated and expelled again before joining a mass movement using civic organisations to promote the cause.

"Given the repression of the time we needed to start with people’s immediate concerns. I was not from a political family. My brother and I were the first in our family to go to university but, even though we were from a working class family that didn’t always understand our activism, they were always concerned for our safety."

Then Naidoo’s mother died. While this is obviously an event that still stings, it gave the young activist a freedom.

"Even though I don’t think about this consciously, it was a wei rd situation, with my mother gone. It meant I could take any amount of risk. So I am deeply respectful of those who chose to contribute in smaller ways. Even now we need to create possibilities for everyone to contribute to a cause in whatever way they can."

After years with civic organisations such as Civicus, the South African National NGO Coalition and SA’s Independent Electoral Commission , Naidoo sees his Greenpeace work as the logical next step.

"If we had human rights and genuine democracy across the world, we would not have the environmental degradation we have. We have it because it makes money for a small, rich lot. People always said Bush had the best environmental legislation oil money can buy."
Naidoo’s call to Greenpeace came in January 2009 during his hunger strike in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe.

"It was the 19th day of my hunger strike. I couldn’t give it serious thought, but then my daughter phoned me. She said, ‘I won’t talk to you if you don’t seriously consider it. You adults have screwed up this earth. Greenpeace has courage’."

Concern for the environment is not something Naidoo thinks best left until basic needs are "sorted out" because he believes climate change is robbing the poor of their traditional livelihoods and is increasing global impoverishment.

Naidoo admits that activism subsumes his life. He spends his free time "doing volunteer stuff", and although he likes reading mystery novels, the books on his bedside table are mostly about leadership, or some other aspect of his work. "I lost close friends during apartheid. I feel like I am living on borrowed time. Gandhi said, ‘I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again’, and that’s how I live. I feel I was lucky. I got a scholarship and have an Oxford PhD. To honour the memory of those who were lost in the struggle I feel it is important not to send a message that fighting for democracy is part of a flirtatious moment in our time."

Reprinted with permission from Business Day. You can find the original story here: