Kumi Naidoo has officially began his tenure as the first ever South African Secretary General of Amnesty International with a visit this week to his home country, where he revealed his vision for the world’s largest human rights organisation.
Kumi Naidoo, who succeeds Salil Shetty, is a seasoned and renown social justice campaigner. Born in Durban in 1965, Kumi’s first taste of activism came at age 15 when he organised and took part in an anti-apartheid protest that saw him expelled from his school, in 1980.
It was therefore of no surprise that on the even of officially taking up his new role, he returned to where his story began – paying a visit to Chatsworth Secondary School in Durban.
Speaking to the children at the morning assembly, Kumi said: “Do not accept your voice does not matter, do not wait until tomorrow to exercise leadership since if you wait, there will be no tomorrow. And remember that service to humanity brings you the greatest happiness.”
Following that expulsion, despite his young age, Kumi became deeply embedded in activism in his local community and become involved in mass mobilisations against the apartheid regime. In 1986, at the age of 21, Kumi was charged for violating the state of emergency regulations. He was forced to go underground, before deciding to live in exile in the UK where he stayed until Nelson Mandela was released and liberation movements were unbanned.
As the apartheid regime crumbled, Kumi returned to South Africa in 1990 to work with the African National Congress. There, he took up a cause close to his heart: education, specifically adult literacy campaigns and voter education efforts to empower historically and systematically disenfranchised communities.
Kumi has since held multiple leadership roles, but his time as Executive Director of Greenpeace International cemented his reputation as a bold activist who championed civil disobedience, most notably when he was arrested for scaling a Greenlandic oil rig to hand-deliver a petition in protest of drilling in the Arctic in 2011. A year later he occupied a Russian oil rig in the Barents Sea in the Russian Arctic.
Kumi’s most recent role has been as a co-founder and interim chair of the pan-African organization, Africans Rising for justice, peace and dignity. The group, which has forged partnerships across trade unions, religion and civil society, aims to change the fact that while the Africa as a continent has benefitted from economic growth, Africans themselves have not shared in that increasing wealth and power.
It was seeing a letter that Nelson Mandela had written to Amnesty International in 1962, thanking the organisation for sending a representative to observe his trial, that inspired Kumi to apply for the role as the global head of Amnesty.
“In my first message as Secretary General, I want to make clear that Amnesty International is now opening its arms wider than ever before to build a genuinely global community that stretches into all four corners of the world, especially in the global south.
“I want us to build a human rights movement that is more inclusive. We need to redefine what it means to be a human rights champion in 2018. An activist can come from all walks of life – a trade union, school, faith group, government or indeed business,” said Kumi Naidoo.
“I want young people to know especially that we are open to you and need you to challenge us to do better by you. It is my abiding belief that young people are not the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders we need here and now,” he added in his first press statement.
Taking on ‘complex world problems’
The human rights movement needs to be bigger, bolder and more inclusive if it is to tackle the challenges that people face today, He told the press as he officially started his new role.
“Our world is facing complex problems that can only be tackled if we break away from old ideas that human rights are about some forms of injustice that people face, but not others. The patterns of oppression that we’re living through are interconnected,” he said said adding:
“You cannot talk about the climate change crisis without recognising that it is also an inequality and race issue; you can’t address sexual discrimination without recognising that it is bound up in the economic exclusion of women; and you can’t ignore the fact that people’s civil and political rights are often suppressed exactly when they are trying to demand basic economic justice.”
Amnesty International has repeatedly warned that we are living through some of the most divisive times in modern history, with prominent leaders offering a nightmarish vision of society blinded by hatred and fear. Only if we come together under the common values that unite us, like human rights, can we overcome this adversity,” he further states.
“Amnesty International was built on the idea that people, regardless of where they are or who they are, take the injustice that other people face personally. And it has proved time and time again that when strangers come together to fight for people that they have never met across the other side of the world, change is possible.”
“Now, more than ever, we need people to come together and stand up to oppressors. I invite people who care about the present and future, for people who care about their children and grandchildren, for people who take injustice personally, to join us. Amnesty International needs your voice, your participation and your presence in our movement to make human rights a reality.”
Amnesty International is the largest human rights movement globally, with a global presence including offices in more than 70 countries. Kumi Naidoo has held multiple leadership roles including Chair of the Global Call for Climate Action, Founding Chair of the Global Call to Action against Poverty and Secretary General and CEO of CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation.