Defender of the Earth

2010-11-29 00:00

THE WITNESS: How did you come to be head of Greenpeace?

KUMI NAIDOO: An executive search company asked if I would be interested in applying for the position. The timing was pretty bad because I was on the 19th day of a 21-day hunger strike in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe. When you have gone that long without food, the world takes on a surreal quality and I was in no position to make important career decisions then and there. When I told my daughter about it on the phone she said: “Dad, if you don’t at least consider the job I will never talk to you again. Greenpeace is one of the best organisations in the world.” I realised that she was right and that it would be a wonderful opportunity not only to help my own continent, but the entire world in the struggle for climate justice, especially the poor.

TW: What does the task entail?

KN: The job is composed of three main responsibilities. I am based at our international headquarters in Amsterdam where I oversee a staff of about 150 people who co-ordinate Greenpeace’s international campaigns, oversee the movements of our ships, manage financial and computer issues and develop our international communications projects. Secondly, I oversee working groups of representatives from our 40 offices which requires a great deal of organisation and even negotiation to balance the needs and responsibilities of various offices. Finally, I represent Greenpeace in various forums like governmental institutions like the UN, NGO coalitions like the Global Campaign for Climate Action, and with corporations and at international meetings. It is a very demanding, diverse job and I love it.

TW: How do you find all the travelling?

KN: When I first started travelling for work many years ago I loved it: meeting new people, seeing new places and experiencing new cultures. Today, I sometimes think it would be heaven never to have to board another train, ship, car or aeroplane ever again. Not only is travel bad for the planet, but I am a tall person and seats in aeroplanes in particular are not built for people like me. In my ideal world, I would be able to stay at home with my family and friends.

TW: What do you and the organisation achieve for the environment?

KN: A better question would be: “What would the planet and the environment look like without Greenpeace?” The list of our “successes” is very long and includes numerous international treaties, national laws and important modifications by business and industry.

Unfortunately there are way too many people willing to harm the environment — and even each other — in exchange for profit. One of Greenpeace’s essential functions is to bear witness to environmental crimes and injustices so that governments and business know that they can’t get away with mistreating the planet.

TW: What background have you had in environmental affairs and what does it mean to you to be part of Greenpeace?

KN: Although I was not technically an environmentalist before joining Greenpeace, I worked on climate change for many years, as do most people who work in human rights and poverty eradication, because climate justice and human rights are two sides of the same coin.

TW: What do you hope to achieve as the head of Greenpeace?

KN: It will take many millions of people coming together, making their voices heard and putting pressure on industry and government to avert catastrophic climate change. Therefore, I see Greenpeace broadening and expanding its membership base and activities around the globe. I also plan to broaden Greenpeace’s presence and programmes in developing countries, and I am extremely pleased that Greenpeace Africa is becoming well established with two fully operational offices in South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, plus satellite offices elsewhere (

TW: How do you manage to keep the work-life balance right?

KN: This is a big challenge. I am blessed that my family and friends are extremely supportive of my work and help it in various ways — the primary one being that they put up with my crazy schedule which often has me travelling to a different country almost every week, sometimes with only 24 hours notice. My greatest joy in life is my daughter, Naomi, who started university in London this year. In addition, I am blessed with a loving partner and her four wonderful boys, who enrich my life in very powerful ways. The children in my life give additional meaning to my work since a lot of what we do at Greenpeace is done to secure a peaceful, just, secure and dignified life for future generations. Finally, my family in Durban, continues to be a major source of inspiration, love and comfort, particularly my father, two sisters and brother.

Who is Kumi Naidoo?


Born: January 8, 1965.

Lives: in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Schooled: Expelled 1981, School Leaving Certificate by self-study, 1982, Oxford.

Qualifications: D.Phil in politics, class, consciousness, and organisation, Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

Family: Teenage daughter, Naomi, partner and four boys.

Currently reading: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

To relax: Gardening and dinner with friends and family.

Favourite snacks: Chicken roti role, which comes from the Dutch West Indies (there’s a great snack shop around the corner from the Greenpeace office) and tea with a bit too much sugar and milk.

Bad habits: Smoking … but planning to quit, and too much sugar in my tea.

Strengths: Bridge-builder. I like to bring people together.

Makes me angry: Injustice.

Proudest achievements: Teaching my little sister to cook after my mum died when we were very young. She cooks a thousand times better than me now.

Lessons from my parents: Sense of community. My mother worked from home and sewed women’s underwear and embroidered saris, and my father worked as a book keeper. Both used their trades to build strong ties to the community, seeing it almost as an extended family.

Miss about SA: The sun, the food and the people.

Regrets: Not being able to spend more time with my family and friends.

Dreams: An international climate treaty that would pave the way for a sustainable planet with enough food and shelter and work for all of us.

On my “bucket list”: Climb Mount Kilimanjaro, learn to cook really good Thai food and write down the history of resistance to apartheid from a grass-roots perspective focusing on my experiences, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.

How is SA's Green score card?

Kumi Naidoo says: “South Africa is generally moving in a positive direction but it is still too little too late.

“Too often our policies look good on paper but lack implementation and follow-through. The bottom line is that we are heavily coal dependent, the largest carbon emitter in Africa and in the top 15 globally.

“We must reduce our coal dependency and move to a low-carbon growth strategy as soon as possible.”

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