Introduced: Kumi Naidoo

June 2021

Kumi Naidoo is a human rights and environmental activist from South Africa. He was Executive Director of Greenpeace International from 2009 to 2016 and Secretary General of Amnesty International from 2018 to 2020.

Kumi Naidoo

What will you work on as Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy?

I will focus on the question of why political activism fails to make the changes needed, and why the rate of progress is so slow and misaligned with science’s urgent realities. I will explore what needs to happen in the future to ensure that activism is more successful. In a nutshell: My assumption is that we need to follow bold, new ways of thinking outside of the formal NGO frameworks and embrace more grassroots, community-based, decentralized forms of political engagement. To explore possible changes and new approaches, I plan to involve the Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow community in discussions on global solutions. I will facilitate four virtual focus-group talks in the community and collect views and ideas on these questions. I intend to share the findings in two seminars with a wider audience of activists and other practitioners.

Additionally, I want to spend time exploring “artivism”, the creative nexus between art and activism, as a potential solution to the failure of communication by activists. I would like to explore the possibilities that artivism offers to make the messages of climate justice, economic justice, and other struggles more accessible to a much larger audience. I will examine this new method together with the Berlin-based artist Olafur Eliasson, who is planning a series of events that provide a forum for an interaction between a segment of the art world and climate emergency activism.

What are the most relevant issues in your field?

One of the biggest problems for activism worldwide is not just the pervasive, repressive state apparatus, even though this can be formidable. This has wreaked havoc on civic space through detention without trials; the murder of activists, including bloggers; and the passing of restrictive laws. This has even been done by governments of countries claiming to be promoters of democracy, as the reports of Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation document. This trend of shrinking our democratic space, seen after 9/11, has continued unabated since then. The biggest challenge is the ideological state apparatus, by which we mean the framework for religion, education, social norms, and customs, as well as and in particular the framework for communications and media.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic challenged and shaped activism and civil society, in particular?

There are many activists who will say that the pandemic is one of the most terrifying periods they have experienced in their lives. They cite the deepening inequality and corruption. And then there’s the fact that we're so close to climate catastrophe. The pandemic uncertainties and the lives lost create a sense of total despair and panic. However, Covid-19 has exposed the deep contradictions that exist in virtually every society worldwide. Particularly, the contradiction of how we value people and deep economic injustice. For example, during COVID, for the first time we had a notion of essential workers that honored the people who feed us, who grow our food, who transport us, and so on. It is tragic to see that as vaccines have become available, the essential worker has been forgotten. At the same time, this uncovering of these contradictions has created the biggest possibility for structural and systemic change. No longer will people be comfortable with the baby steps that our current system has been offering us to solve long-standing social, economic, political, and environmental injustices.

What insights for your future work are you expecting to gain during your fellowship?

Through critical reflection on my own activism over the years, I will identify some of the reasons why activism is not making big enough gains, fast enough. I hope to develop a deeper understanding of the impediments to mobilizing public outcry for political and business leaders to act with the urgency the situation calls for. I will then try to propose some ways in which activism could rethink some of its orthodoxies, strategies, and tactics.

What makes Berlin and Germany relevant for your work?

One of my key realizations after many decades of activism is that one of the main weaknesses of a large part of activism is that activists project their own consciousness on the people they are seeking to mobilize. They do this rather than humbling themselves, understanding how people communicate and their cultural rhythms and responding to it. Activism should start with what people know and build on what they understand, rather than just expecting people to be at a place we wish them to be. In that light, I've come to the conclusion that we need to understand more deeply how we can communicate complex messages in accessible ways without being simplistic. One of the people who has inspired me greatly in this thinking is the artist Olafur Eliasson, with whom I've had the privilege of working. He is based in Berlin. Olafur and I will be looking to bridge these worlds of activism and arts and culture. I will also reach out the rich and diverse set of arts and cultural workers in Berlin, some of whom I have had pleasure to work with in the past.

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