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Kumi Naidoo gets real on COP26, burnout, grief, his new book and life after Amnesty International

The former head of Greenpeace and ex-secretary general of Amnesty International, Kumi Naidoo, left. Picture: Supplied

The former head of Greenpeace and ex-secretary general of Amnesty International, Kumi Naidoo, left. Picture: Supplied

Published Nov 6, 2021

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What happens when an activist, fighting for justice and the environment, finds his body and mind mirroring the ailing planet?

Former head of Greenpeace and ex-general secretary-general of Amnesty International, Kumi Naidoo – much like the people and the planet he defends – found himself ill and close to burnout. But then Mother Nature stepped in.

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As things came to a head for the planet – “Do something drastic or we won’t survive”, Naidoo, 56, himself had been given a similar message, shortly before he left Amnesty International over a year ago.

“I was working excessive hours, travelling intensively, feeling sick and suffering from severe hypertension that medication was failing to control,” he tells me. We were talking in a series of zoom and WhatsApp meetings, first from his home in Yeoville, Johannesburg, then to his current temporary home in Berlin and finally from Glasgow where he is attending Cop26.

He arrived at the conference as South Africa secured over R131 billion to end its reliance on coal, and when over 100 leaders pledged to end deforestation by 2030 and slash emissions of the lethal greenhouse gas, methane. He also addressed several civil society meetings and has a full schedule of interviews and workshops for the coming 10 days of the negotiations.

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“This COP is probably the most consequential, and even though there is a massive gap between what science and extreme weather events are suggesting and where the politics and economics is; we have no choice but to push for the best possible outcome and then the day after the COP intensify our campaigning to move the agenda forward.

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“Make no mistake, our governments are nowhere near where the science says we need to be,” he says.

Read more:

Podcasts for the environment - Power, People and Planet with Kumi Naidoo. Episode One: Carne Ross

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Podcasts for the environment - Power, People and Planet with Kumi Naidoo. Episode Two: Aruna Rao

Naidoo, who recently told the world that we were a minute away from midnight regarding the climate crisis, was himself physically ailing and burnt out when he left Amnesty.

He had joined Amnesty at a time when the organisation was going through intense internal tensions; a mere few months after two of its employees had committed suicide with one citing their work environment as among their reasons.

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Six months into his tenure it also came to light that Amnesty was in a financial crisis – something he had not been aware of when he joined – and he had to start a process of retrenching more than 100 staff members to make sure the organisation was financially viable.

“It was a really difficult period,” Naidoo says.

“Friends and family were concerned. They said my choice was a simple one given my medical situation, and if I continued this way I was unlikely to be around for much longer.

“They said, essentially, this was irresponsible and I needed to develop a more sustainable lifestyle with space for exercise, diet and sleep, all of which I had neglected.

“They said if I did this I might have the opportunity to continue contributing for another 10 to 20 years.”

In effect, the friends’ advice was similar to the feedback the latest (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) IPCC report gave the world on climate change.

Naidoo leading protest action in his younger days in South Africa. Picture: Supplied

“I had to take stock. And I remembered a remark made to me by my friend, the late activist Lenny Naidu when we were young. He said: ‘Kumi, to be a great activist is not to die for the cause – it is to give all the years of your life to the cause’.

“I realised the fight for justice is not a sprint but a marathon, and the biggest sacrifice anyone can make is to be true to those values until injustices have been overcome.”

Staying in it for the long haul is not new to Naidoo, who has been an activist since his formative years in Durban.

International justice and environmental activist Kumi Naidoo and former president Nelson Mandela. Picture: Supplied

After leading the adult education movement and the South African NGO Coalition, Naidoo joined Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and then Greenpeace.

More than four decades later, he was head of Amnesty and the marathon was taking its toll.

“I didn’t find it easy to leave Amnesty – I don’t easily give up on things.”

He adds: “With so many people trying so hard to get our governments and business to put people and the planet before profit, for the first time I struggled to deal with the world.

“The main reason I could not engage like I normally do is because one of my roles has become ‘inspirer in chief’ when movements and struggles were facing challenges and setbacks. And I felt that I had run out of good answers to big challenges and questions of our time.”

Just as he was finishing up his last days at Amnesty the Covid pandemic hit. And then a botfly parasite picked up during a visit to South America turned out to be part of the cause of his physical ailments.

Kumi Naidoo had three botfly larvae incubating in his flesh. Picture: Kumi Naidoo

“In a way, the botfly infection saved me,” says Naidoo.

When he left Amnesty and with the global pandemic raging across the planet, he was being approached for help from different quarters and was inclined to say yes.

“The infection forced me to stop.

“I didn’t know what was happening to me. I had incredible pains in my stomach, chest and head and it felt like there was something inside me that didn’t seem right.”

His problem was three botfly larvae incubating in his flesh. He points to his head where one of the creatures emerged from his body.

The botfly which is found only in Central and South America lays its eggs on a mosquito and when they bite animals (and occasionally people) the egg is deposited. The egg has an inbuilt antibiotic to protect the host!

It is to save other people the misery of not knowing what is happening to them that he elaborates further. “If you know what is happening then you simply cover the wound with vaseline and the larva comes out in 45 minutes seeking oxygen and you can tweeze it out of your body and the wound heals quickly.”

The first two died in his body as a result of turmeric being applied to it...the worst possible thing since eventually, he had to undergo surgery to remove the dead larvae.

Kumi Naidoo in his younger days, during protest action in South Africa. Picture: Supplied

But it wasn’t only Mother Earth telling Kumi to take it easy. It was also the never-dealt-with grief of losing his mother Manormanie Naidoo to suicide when she was 38 and he was 15.

Back in South Africa, he says he stopped running from his grief. “I sat down to write my mother a letter – it was a cathartic exercise.”

This letter turned into a book titled A Letter to my Mother: The Making of a Troublemaker which is to be published by Jacana Media.

He says he realises that everything he does, all the decisions he has made, were based on the lessons he learnt between the ages of 15 and 22, starting with his mother’s death.

“The book taught me how important it is to make space to deal with loss when it happens.

“I was the second eldest of my siblings, and at that age, I felt I had to take the responsibility of caring for my younger brother and sister. My elder sister, Kay, was an amazing support through all the trauma that we went through. Without her, I probably would not have been around for this long. But then in 2018, she died one month after being diagnosed with a brain tumour, which meant now I had to deal with both her and my mother’s deaths.

Kumi Naidoo in his younger days. Picture: Supplied

“It was a deeply painful and traumatic experience – there were many tears and moments when I felt immobilised. And I learnt that if you don’t deal with grief at the time, it will never leave you.

“The process of writing this book has been healing. I feel my mother’s presence when I experience the highs and lows life offers.

“The process also taught me that being busy, purposeful and even dedicating oneself to the cause of justice doesn’t eradicate the trauma we experience, it simply delays it.”

He wishes he had had more support in dealing with his mother’s suicide when he was growing up.

But now he can look back at his mother and the lessons she taught him with love. “If my mother was still around, watching my journey, I could imagine her saying something like, ‘You didn't turn out the way I planned, but you haven't done too bad either! Continue to practise the three things I taught you: one – it’s better, to be honest, and unpopular than dishonest and popular. Two, it’s much better to try and fail than fail to try. And three, see God in the eyes of every human being and recognise that you cannot do much about the weaknesses of others, but you can do something about the weaknesses in yourself.”

He has some things he would like to tell his mum too. “I want to say although I’ve made many missteps, mistakes and tactical errors, I feel strongly that I owe a massive debt to her for all the values that she and my dad, Shunmugam, instilled in me in our time together, even though it was so brief.

“It was these values that allowed me to realise the more positive, constructive and enabling things that I’ve been able to contribute to society.”

But the story doesn’t end here. A slightly healthier Kumi, (“I am not quite there yet”) went to Berlin a month or so ago, on a new mission: to take up a fellowship with the Robert Bosch Academy, a foundation that offers international decision-makers, opinion leaders and experts the opportunity for co-operation on issues of global relevance.

A more recent photo of Kumi Naidoo. Picture: Shayne Robinson/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

“We need to bring the worlds of arts and culture and activism together – artivism, and this is what I’ll be working on in the six months I am in Berlin to ensure that we can rapidly educate the global population about how close to the climate cliff we actually are.

“I have launched a series of podcasts speaking to activists from around the world asking why activism is failing and what needs to change to give us a greater chance at success.”

Hopefully, his new approach to life has bought him not only 10 to 20 years, but many more. This planet and its people need him.

* Follow Kumi Naidoo on social media on Learn More about Power, People & Planet by visiting: https://powerpeopleplanet.org, on his Facebook page or on Twitter.

Vivian Warby is executive editor of Property and Environment

This article first appeared in Saturday Insider, Nov 6, 2021

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