It is not leaders that make history, it is ordinary people
– Kumi Naidoo
Kumi Naidoo has led a life of service strengthening democracy, breaking chains of injustice, leading international climate campaigns and advocating for positive change through philanthropy and ‘artivism’. Exclusive Books grabbed the chance to chat to this force:
1. The youth have been the face of present and historic mass movements. Why do you think the youth are catalysts of change?
Young people have historically been told that they are the leaders of the future. Today, young people must resist this idea because if they wait for the future to take leadership, there might not be a future at all. If we look at the African continent and beyond, young people are at the forefront of holding corrupt governments accountable, taking action around climate and standing up for gender equality.
2. Artivism, is, as you have said, the future of activism because of its emotional reach. You are the Community Arts Network Ambassador for a global arts organization. What drew you to this partnership?
For a long time now, it’s become clear to me that one of the biggest challenges facing activism is our inability to communicate to the people that we most need to reach. I would argue that arts and culture on their own will not deliver us the massive mobilization and push we need to make, to rebuild societies in a more equitable way. However, without arts and culture, we can almost guarantee that we don’t have a chance of averting the worst of the climate crisis. A motivation for getting involved in artivism is my son Rikhado ‘Riky Rick’ Makhado, who played the role of a ‘teacher’ on this issue for me. I saw how he was able to reach significantly more numbers of people than his mom and I were able to do in our combined years of activism.
3. How has your activism on the streets from your younger days, influenced your advocacy behind boardrooms with heads of state in your later years?
If you do not know where you come from, you will never know where you’re going. Irrespective of what role I’ve had, the first thing I do in the mornings is to remind myself that I’m very lucky to be alive and that I have an obligation to use the life that I still have in a meaningful way. While cultures can vary in different parts of the world, most people want a decent education for their children, a safe home where they can bring them up and healthcare that’s affordable and decent. When I am behind boardrooms with heads of state or in similar environments, I remind myself that it’s not about big policy changes. The moment of urgency we find ourselves in calls for brutal honesty.
4. From Letters to My Mother, you write, ‘‘I have been reminded that while writing is a solitary task, it is also a collective endeavour.’’ How was the process of producing this vulnerable account?
It was kak 🙂 I was not sure that I would publish even though I hoped I would have the courage to do so. For me, the fact of writing was me finally attempting to deal with my mother’s tragic suicide when I was 15. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it without a lot of encouragement and even cajoling. Two close friends in Durban, Denny and Sandro Thaver, have been harassing me to write a book for more than 20 years. The other big motivation was really trying to reflect honestly about that period to see whether some of the roots of the crisis we find ourselves in are also in the way we actually prosecuted the struggle itself. I also wanted to honour many people, who helped shape who I am and who have contributed so much, including with their lives.
5. Your experience with trauma is one that has echoed from your early life to this year when you lost your son, the adored musician, Riky Rick. To those people who are navigating the canyons of grief, what words of strength would you give them?
I would say don’t imagine that it’s not going to be hard. The fact that there’s pain means there is an expression of deep love that you had and continue to have. Embrace the pain because it would be worrying if the pain was not there. It would probably mean that you’re not dealing with the loss. Secondly, find joy in celebrating the cherished moments. Don’t imagine that the pain will ever go away. It is simply about budgeting for the pain in a way where you know there will always be pain coming. From different moments, birthdays, the anniversary of a death, and other special anniversaries where you did special things together, the pain will peak.
6. Rajendra Singh (known as the waterman of India) said that, ‘‘Nature is our greatest teacher’’. How has your understanding and advocacy of the natural world enlightened your views on social justice?
When I was growing up in apartheid, South Africa, the prevailing view was that worrying about the environment was what rich people and white people did. I was blessed to have a true visionary of a friend in Lenny Naidu, who sadly was murdered at the age of 24 by the apartheid regime, together with three young women from Durban.
He was probably 1 of 5,000 voluntary vegetarians in the entire African continent in the 70s. He was the one person I knew who fully understood the interconnection between racial justice and environmental justice. When I was the chair of the Global Culture Action Against Poverty between 2004 and 2008, I could see how the struggle to address poverty, and inequality and the struggle to avert environmental collapse and climate catastrophe are two sides of the same coin. Today it’s clear that one of the mistakes that the traditional environmental movements made was placing climate change as just an environmental issue, whereas climate change is a totally crosscutting issue. It’s about the economy, it’s about jobs, it’s about our energy system, our food system and everything.
7. Where do you find hope in today’s harsh reality?
I find hope in the youth. Young people have a fresh lens when they look at the world and they bring fresh perspectives to all problems. But they also know that they are going to pay a brutal price for the failure of current adult leadership in politics and economics, which is driven by greed and short-term thinking. Therefore, they are mobilizing in such creative and inspiring ways across the world, from, Vanessa Nakate in Uganda, Toia Ravi in India to Greta Thunberg in Sweden. I continue to urge young people not to accept that they are the leaders of tomorrow – they must assert leadership now! Otherwise, there might not be a tomorrow for them to lead in.