Kumi Naidoo – Life lessons from an activist who never gave up despite unspeakable tragedies

The ongoing disaster at Eskom is a disgrace for this country and its post-apartheid trajectory, but one of the unseen catastrophes is the fact that the poverty of rural communities the length and breadth of this country remains in place because they don’t have power. A single Gupta verneukery or an Ace Magashule-esque dairy project could have electrified swathes of poverty-stricken villages in KwaZulu Natal.

It’s a different take on the crisis but totally in keeping for someone like Kumi Naidoo who cut his teeth as a 15-year-old activist. He was a small ‘a’ activist, embedded in the grassroots who would ultimately become one of the biggest ‘A’ activists of all; running Greenpeace and then Amnesty International. 

Most South Africans know his story; those in KZN know him from the Struggle and take immense pride in his winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. The rest of us have probably read of him scaling oil rigs in icy seas to protest or flying into hell hole after hell hole to fight for the human rights of people whose names we can barely pronounce – if we’d even heard of them in the first place.

He’s never stopped fighting for the little people. He’s never stopped caring. He’s also the only person who could turn a book launch – his own – into a mini, impromptu, protest ahead of COP 27 in Sharm-el Sheikh next week to get all 200 attendees chanting “1,5 to stay alive”. 

The picture of them all in front of a quickly drawn up banner will be sent to the great and the good by email, unlike the carbon footprints the VVIPs will create as they fly in at great expense to spend a week glad handing one another, exchange business cards and then lecture the rest of us on the perils of climate change. It will remind them as they wring their hands over countries paying lip service to the 1,5degC crisis point, or ignoring it altogether, of precisely what’s at stake. 

Kumi’s never given up even though his life has been bookended by unspeakable tragedy; from losing his mother at the age of 15 to suicide and then his son, Riky Rick, in February this year. Lesser people would have stopped, turned inward. Naidoo did the opposite. He has written a book; Letters to my Mother, which began its nationwide range of launches in Rosebank on Tuesday evening. It’s profoundly personal, unbelievably moving and very brave. It’s greatest gift though is hope. 

We can’t afford the luxury of pessimism in this country – or the world – he says. It’s another vintage Kumi-ism: We have to be better than the world that we inhabit. We have to live with purpose, we have to give our lives meaning. It’s easier said than done: Eskom, catastrophic service delivery failure, identity politics, the blame game all conspire to suck us deeper into their maw. 

Naidoo is living proof that it doesn’t have to be that way. We should all buy his book. We should all give thanks for someone like Kumi Naidoo – and his partner Louisa Zondo. 

They really do represent the best of us.

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 5 November 2022.