Interview: March for progress
Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International, talks to Stephen Tomkins
Since he took a lead in high school boycotts in apartheid South Africa at the age of 15, Kumi Naidoo has lived a life of activism and nonviolent direct action. This resulted in him being forced to leave his home country at 22, but has also made him a global leader of civil society, with posts in charge of Greenpeace and Amnesty International. As head of Greenpeace, he more than once took part in actions to disrupt oil drilling, and in 2011 he spent time in prison in Greenland and Denmark as a result.
Reform spoke to him in August at Greenbelt festival, where he speaking about how civil disobedience can change the world.
You were expelled from school at 15 for your activism.
Yes, I grew up in Durban, South Africa, and in 1980 there was a national student uprising to protest against the inequality in education. I was one of thousands of students who were thrown up into leadership. And because the state moved in and expelled us or suspended us from school, what could have been a mere episode became more. If the state hadn’t used such repression against us, we young people might have just got on with our lives, and led very conventional lives. On balance, state oppression quite often backfires. It gives the resistance more moral character, more juice, more visibility.
What were you doing at 15? Marching?
Yes, but first we stayed in the school. Older students who were 17 started off leading the boycott as it was called, and they were making us march round and round the school grounds, you know. I went up to them with a few of my friends, and said: ‘What are we resisting here?’
They said: ‘No, this is about like Mahatma Gandhi and passive resistance and satyagraha.’
We said: ‘Yeah, but we don’t want to resist the school’s law, we want to resist the government’s law. The principal is not deciding how much money he should get from the state. He would happily take more money if he got it. So if we just march around the ground, we’re just irritating the school principal, not irritating the state.’ I made the argument that we need to march on to the streets and into the next school, and make contact with them.
One guy was already at university, but put on school uniform and came into the school to agitate, but when it got to this point, he panicked, because the laws didn’t allow you to march on the streets. He thought: Jeez, these kids, they’re going to march, and there could be 20, 30, 50 people killed within seconds.
I remember him saying: ‘Have you heard about Sharpeville?’ Sharpeville was an event in our history in 1961 where 69 people were murdered for protesting against what were called the Pass Laws, which meant that people had to carry this piece of paper everywhere they meant.
I’d barely heard of Sharpeville. He said: ‘People got killed.’
But enough people around me said: ‘Well, if people got killed in 1961 for standing up for justice, we don’t see no reason why people shouldn’t be killed in 1980 standing up for justice, so we’re going to go do it. If they kill us, they kill us. But we’re following in the spirit of the people of Sharpeville. You think the people of Sharpeville would have wanted us to take a message from their sacrifice that nobody should take any action if it’s going to endanger their lives?’ (They knew that there was a good chance they were going to get killed, they’d been given warnings, and they just went to a police station, peacefully, and the police opened fire, just because there were so many mobilised.)
So we marched…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the December 2019/January 2020 edition of Reform