Act: Inspiration

Kumi Naidoo: Origins and Self-Care in the Journey for Justice

April 23, 2024

For more than 40 years, Kumi Naidoo has been a voice for social, economic and environmental justice. As a valued PCI ally, Kumi has offered his expertise as a panelist for our 2021 online event, Dismantling Economic Inequality, and appeared as a featured guest on our What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast.

We’re honored to welcome Kumi back as a guest speaker for Welcome to the Great Unraveling, our free online event on Tuesday, May 14.

To get a glimpse into Kumi’s story, the driving forces behind his lifelong commitment to activism, and a preview of what he’s going to cover during the event, watch this short interview with PCI Executive Director Asher Miller.

“The struggle for social justice, economic justice, climate justice, gender justice, Indigenous justice, and so on…These struggles are marathons. They’re not sprints. The biggest contribution any one of us can make is being true to those struggles with as much energy and engagement that we are able to muster.”

We hope you can join us on Tuesday, May 14 at 11:00 AM US Pacific Time for Welcome to the Great Unraveling. Kumi and Dr. Lyla June Johnston will lead us through a framework for understanding the polycrisis of social and environmental challenges, and offer practical suggestions for how each of us can actively be part of the solution.

Register for the Event


Kumi Naidoo: Origins and Self-Care in the Journey for Justice

Asher Miller: Hi, Kumi. It’s nice to see you. Thank you for taking a few minutes to chat this morning, or I guess now we’re starting in the afternoon here. I’m really looking forward to our conversation with Lyla June Johnston on May 14th. When I have a chance… hopefully we’ll have a chance to dive more deeply into questions of how we, as individuals and as a collective can navigate what Joanna Macy is called the Great Unraveling of environmental and social systems. But before we hold that conversation, and as a means of introducing you a little bit to our audience, I was hoping I could just ask you a couple of questions. Take them wherever they lead you as an invitation.

You’ve dedicated much of your life since you were young to combating issues of human rights and inequality, the destruction of the natural world, first as an activist in South Africa, and then heading up organizations like Amnesty International and Greenpeace. And I’m just wondering if there was a series of moments or a moment that led you to the shared work, or at least seeing how all of these different issues that you’ve worked on are connected.

Kumi Naidoo: So, thank you for that question. So I got involved in the liberation struggle against Apartheid when I was 15. It was two weeks after my mom, who was 38 at that time, committed suicide. And you know how when you lose, you suffer a traumatic loss, people are always wanting to say nice things and comfort you, but they often end up saying the most… you know, “God picks his favorite flowers first.” “She’s in a better place.” “She’s out of pain.” All of that stuff.

And I always knew that people were intending well, but in the midst of all that pain, a friend of my father who was an activist said to me, “My boy, I don’t know how you recover from something like this, but one thing I know is that however bad or in pain you might feel right now, there are people in our country, in the world, and on our continent, Africa, who are much, much worse than what you’re feeling right now.

“So, my advice to you is try to live your life with purpose and try and fight for the dignity of all people and try and address injustice because that will give your life meaning.” 

So for me, activism itself at a personal level is a healing journey in itself because it was… Now it was true that before my mom passed, I was already getting kind of involved and so on, but it kind of consolidated it.

Then the second thing that helped me keep a lifetime of involvement was when I was in my early 20s, when I was fleeing the country, my best friend at that time, a guy called Lenny, the last time we would see each other, asked me, “Kumi, what is the biggest contribution you can make to the course of humanity?”

And I said, “That’s an easy question. Giving your life.” 

And he said, “You mean going, participating in a demonstration, getting shot and killed and becoming a martyr?” 

I said, “Yeah, I guess so.” 

And then he said to me, “That’s the wrong answer. It’s not giving your life. but giving the rest of your life.” 

I was 22 years old at that time. My friend Lenny was way ahead of us. In fact, he was the only person amongst us who understood the intersection between environmental justice and racial justice. And I jokingly say, I think at that time he was probably one of like 5, 000 voluntary vegetarians on the entire African continent. He was somebody way ahead of his time.

Two years, less than two years after that conversation, while I’m a student in exile in the UK, I get a call telling me that my friend Lenny and three young women from my home city, Durban, were brutally murdered by the Apartheid regime. I had to think deep and hard about that last conversation and that distinction that he was making between giving your life versus giving the rest of your life.

And what he was saying is the struggle for justice, social justice, economic justice, climate justice, gender justice, Indigenous justice, and so on, these struggles are marathons and they’re not sprints. And the biggest contribution any one of us can make is being true to those struggles with as much energy and engagement that we are able to muster.

And especially for those of us who’ve had the benefit of education to understand the injustice, should recognize we have an obligation to contribute as effectively as we can. And part of that is also changing the mentality which we labor under. Because many of us grew up in cultures, especially boys, grew up in cultures saying, you know, “Give your life for this cause.” That’s what we used to say in the anti-Apartheid struggle, you know, “We are prepared to die for the cause, die for the country,” and so on. 

Basically what you want to do is flip that on its head and say, “We want to encourage people to want to live purposefully for their cause and for their country,” and so on. You know, to be able to make this journey that I’ve done, and as others like me have done, it’s also about having the confidence to know that you don’t know most things, that you actually have a lot to learn. 

I mean, at 15, my first march, for example, the slogan at the front of the march, which was about education and inequality in education, the slogan at the front of the boycott, the march was, “We want equality! We want equality.”

By the time it got to the 12 year olds, or even much younger, at the end of the march, they were thinking that this was the slogan from the front… they were chanting, “We want a color TV! We want a color TV!” Not “We want equality!” And, to be absolutely honest about it, at that time, even me as a 15 year old wanted equality and a color TV almost equally. And both appeared equally unattainable. Right. 

And so then, as I began , the most important lesson I have learned is that we should never have ignored what the feminist movement taught us decades and decades ago, when they introduced us to the idea of intersectionality. And I think one of the key problems of activism is that we continue to operate in silos.

And the moment of history we find ourselves in now is one where we need to turbocharge intersectionality. And I think because people in their lives don’t exist with like, you know, one part of me is concerned about human rights, another part is concerned about the environment, another part is about inequality, and so on.

People live integrated, wholesome lives, and activism forces people sometimes to think in silos, and we need to change that culture. 

The other thing that I should say about why I began engaging at the global level was… In the early 1980s, some older folks might remember a slogan that went, especially in the U.S. and in the Global North, went, “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Right? What was behind that slogan was… irrespective of the issues that you were trying to tackle at the local level, you need to think more deeply about how global power, global discourse, global institutions, and so on, shape the space within which your local struggles can actually happen.

Right. But by the time we got to the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and so on, where we were seeing real power, with the spirit of globalization that was getting traction around many issues, was moving from the national to the global levels. So, for example, you can’t get a climate solution in a single country.

You couldn’t even, you couldn’t fight for access to HIV, AIDS, life saving drugs in our context in Africa without understanding how the World Intellectual Property Organization, WIPO, controls patenting and so on, you know. So a new movement that emerged in the early 90s from within the feminist movement again called DAWNE — Development Alternatives for Women in a New Era — and a woman called Devaki Jain, an economist from India, said, “Hang on a minute. If we think globally, and we act solely locally, and real power is shifting from the local to the global levels, then we as people, particularly from the Global South, will be marginalizing ourselves and pulling ourselves where real power today sits.”

The reality though is that we don’t have the luxury to act locally or globally. We have to act locally, state or provincially, nationally, regionally — like European Union, African Union, all that — and globally. So each of those levels of intervention, we have to act. It’s a question of figuring out the proportionality of how we use our energies and so on.

So we need to flip it because she said, maybe we think locally in terms of what our needs are. And if real power sits globally, then let’s, put our pressures there, in terms of trying to advance things. So I’ve continued over the years to keep a local commitment to the very community in which I live in South Africa, and national issues, even though I worked quite a lot, I would say, more globally over the last 25 years.

Asher Miller: Thank you for that. Are there practices in your life or what is it that you do, and maybe you don’t do or you struggle with, to care for yourself that makes you more able to stay with the trouble, so to speak? 

Kumi Naidoo: So I must confess here that many people who’ve worked with me in different settings and so on, if they hear me sharing wisdom about taking care of yourself, they would… 

Asher Miller: They would laugh, right?

Kumi Naidoo: So I must start by confessing that… 

Asher Miller: So it’s an edge for you! It doesn’t mean that you’ve figured it out. 

Kumi Naidoo: So I have been struggling with trying to find some balance where I can do what I need to do to remain healthy and so on. Thankfully, you know, the fact that I lived energetically, was engaged in civil disobedience, was moving all the time and so on, that, that actually allowed me. to stay relatively okay, physical wise. But I completely neglected my mental health. Because I never recovered from my mom’s suicide, as well as multiple losses I’ve had since then. And the one thing that I did was start taking care of recognizing that you don’t… Nobody who suffers from a traumatic experience doesn’t get left with PTSD. And I was also living a life as a teenager where every other weekend I was at a funeral burying somebody I knew, somebody I had heard of, who had been killed by the Apartheid regime. 

And people used to point this out to me, because Lenny’s message about giving your life versus giving the rest of your life, is saying the struggle for justice is a marathon and not a sprint. And the best thing that any one of us who’s had the privilege of education, exposure to injustice, bearing witness, and so on, is to try to contribute to those struggles. And you know that you’re never going to win everything, but you want to make sure that the arc of history is bending in a direction which is much, much more just, and so on. 

So I have tried, not as successfully as I should, might I say, with introducing into my life meditation. And, especially during COVID, I was part of a group, a Buddhist meditation group, without which I would not have survived that experience because I had got stuck in London on my own.

And then the second therapy was writing, right? So writing, I wrote two poems in the last couple of years, which never occurred to me that I would be moved to write a poem. But the poems were about healing for myself. Like, you know, it was about how do I look at the world and see all the injustice and try to make sense of it in a way that it helps others who are going through the same thing. Because I have lots of people in my life who are going through the same thing. 

So I now also have a yoga practice. I was recently diagnosed with diabetes, so I’m doing a yoga for diabetes routine, which I do with my better half, Louisa, on a daily basis. Try to do it on a daily basis. But let me confess that the practice is not as strong as it should be.

Asher Miller: Well, like you said, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

Kumi Naidoo: Yeah. In fact, the healing itself is the, is a marathon, right? But one thing that I did find solace is in the writing process because I managed to… I finally, during lockdown and subsequent to it, came to terms with my mother’s passing by writing a book called Letters to My Mother: the Making of a Troublemaker. It’s a childhood activist memoir, and it’s like all the things I would have wanted to tell my mom, if I could speak to her. And even though that brings up pain as well, it also has been tremendously healing. 

And then also I’ve downplayed the importance of physical fitness, which I think is something we should never do. And so I’m now building walking and jogging into my life routine, again, not as good as I need to be. And then the other thing is also just being more purposeful about food, and and eating in a way that is enabling healthy… So when I actually stepped down from Amnesty, I was extremely ill, because my blood pressure had rocketed, and my cholesterol had got out of control, all of that stuff. And now I am in a position where I have a better grasp of it. I’m not there yet, but kind of working in a purposeful way to deal with that. And the main thing, healing thing for me, is to live a life where you using your knowledge, your skills, your talents, your experience for addressing injustice.

So I’m happiest when I am engaged in struggles, even if it means struggles where I’m climbing an oil rig or getting arrested and all of that. I’m happiest at those moments because I feel I’m living with purpose and notwithstanding even the consequences that might come from it.

Asher Miller: Thank you for sharing all of that and being so honest and open about those things. It certainly makes me look forward to this deeper conversation that we can have with Lyla June in a few weeks, and I’m sure that that the audience feels the same way. 

So I appreciate you Kumi. Thank you for just taking a few minutes to chat. 

Kumi Naidoo: Thank you very much and I look forward to the conversation with Lyla June and with the people attending the event. Thank you. 

Asher Miller: Thanks.