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Kumi Naidoo: Frontline activist ready to take on the world

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African Voices: Kumi Naidoo
  • Kumi Naidoo is the International Executive Director of Greenpeace
  • Grew up in apartheid South Africa and says he was born in activism
  • Sees poverty reduction and combating climate change as part of same struggle
  • One of first tasks is in Copenhagen during the COP15 summit

(CNN) -- From anti-apartheid activist to climate change champion, Kumi Naidoo is a man born to make a change. He's the new International Executive Director of environmental action group Greenpeace, and he takes on his role on the eve of the critical climate talks in Copenhagen.

The 44 year-old grew up in Johannesburg and had an early introduction to the world of activism.

"I was defiantly the product of the society I was born in, which was apartheid South Africa...I do think that many of us who might have exceptional or out-of-the-ordinary backgrounds are not because we ourselves are exceptional people but because we were born in context of adversity and been able to somehow rise above that adversity," he told CNN.

Naidoo was arrested numerous times for civil disobedience against the apartheid regime during the 1980s. He eventually left for the UK in 1987 and earned a doctorate in political sociology at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

After Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, Kumi returned to South Africa and worked with and founded a number of civil society NGOs. Until last year Naidoo was for 10 years the General Secretary of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

One of the first high profile campaigns Naidoo worked on was Make Poverty History in 2005 that gained widespread coverage and a number of celebrity supporters.

After several years in the anti-poverty movement, Naidoo has come to see that struggle against poverty and combating climate change are two-sides of same coin.

Since becoming head of Greenpeace in November, Naidoo is focused on using his skills as an activist to move issues from the fringes into the mainstream.

"[Another] feature of activism is being able to choose the right tools and tactics for the right moment... If you can win through dialogue and engagement then that's great but sadly those with power in both government and business do not have the propensity to do the right thing unless they are pushed and that's why you have to have tools like non-violent direct action," he told CNN.

Connecting individuals to ideas and in turn connecting those ideas to a greater audience is one of the things Naidoo is hoping to achieve in Copenhagen.

"I don't want history to judge us as sleepwalking into a crisis when all the scientific evidence is saying that we have to stop and take notice of the way that we are living on this planet.

"I feel that right now we are all at risk and being severely judged by future generation."

Watch Kumi Naidoo on CNN's African Voices on Saturday, December 12, 11.30 and 18.30 GMT and Sunday, December 13, 17.00 GMT