The morning was frozen grey. The atmosphere, thick with gloom, shrank the world’s dimensions. Dark water sloshed against the rubber duck that held a cluster of yellow helmets, each marking a member of Kumi Naidoo’s Greenpeace crew. Joining a series of protesters, the environmental NGO’s team had come to protect the Arctic Ocean. The controversial Cairn Energy oil rig known as the Leiv Eiriksson, which floated 120 kilometres off the coast of Greenland, had evoked widespread outburst for refusing to produce an oil-spill protocol. Armed with a petition signed by 50 000 people, Naidoo scaled the vessel to demand its captain cease drilling.
The dramatic scene, which unfolded in 2011, embodied the frontline approach that the environmentalist took to leading Greenpeace for over six years. But it was far from his first experience of a no-go zone. As a schoolboy, Naidoo was a marked anti-apartheid activist. With his life under threat, he was forced underground before eventually leaving the country through the Rhodes Scholarship. This gave him the opportunity to strategise with other brilliant young minds from around the globe about creating a better world while he studied towards a PhD in Political Sociology. Naidoo returned home after Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 to work on the legalisation of the ANC and lead literacy campaigns.
“Activism is about people saying that ‘I am concerned about my community and the people who live around me’,” says Naidoo, who believes that the fight for human rights in South Africa and other developing countries has become inextricably linked to combating climate change. “This is one of the defining environmental struggles of our time,” he explains. “It is the people in poor countries who are facing the first and most brutal impacts of climate change.” That’s why Naidoo climbed to the top of a man-made monstrosity in the middle of a turbulent sea. We can’t all be full-time activists, but we can all take a stand for what matters.