Jay Naidoo is a South African anti-apartheid activist, trade unionist, and author. Naidoo served as the first general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions from 1985 to 1993. Following South Africa's transition to democracy in the early 1990s, Naidoo served as a cabinet minister under the late President Nelson Mandela, from 1994 to 1999. Following his tenure in public office, Naidoo also served as chairperson of the Development Bank of Southern Africa. Naidoo is a respected elder who continues to mentor young leaders in South Africa and the rest of the African continent.

Following unrest in South Africa in July, Naidoo here reflects on why he believes poverty and inequality were in part responsible for the widespread violence and disruptions, and why the country needs to recommit itself to the ideals of equality and freedom that are enshrined in South Africa's constitution.

Drawing on his vast experience as an organiser and activist, Naidoo further highlights why young people all over the world, currently living through various political and enviromental upheavals, have an opportunity to organise for a more just and equitable world. 

You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.

My name is Jay Naidoo and I am the great grandson of an indentured labourer from the south of India, who came to work on the sugar farms of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Indentured labourers meant being a slave, because in many ways indentured labourers were enslaved. I am a fourth generation South African and consider myself a South African but with an ancestry from the south of India.

My earliest memory of apartheid was being evicted from our house because we were the wrong colour on the wrong side of the street. We were technically in what was considered a “black spot” which had to be removed so the cities could be made white. That experience had a deep emotional and psychological impact on me (which I only realised later), but it made me extremely angry that I had to leave this place that I loved, which was a small wooden and tin house.

That experience shaped my values in a sense and so my great influence, at a personal level, was my mother who always taught me that irrespective of your faith, colour, religion, language, culture, shape, that we all come from one place. But apartheid made me very angry because it was exclusionary, and just how negating it was of you as a human being, and it is not easy for young people to understand that today.

At one point I actually believed I was inferior to white people which was a huge wound that I carried, and still carry, even though I have dealt with much of the healing around that. It made me really angry with myself and my parents.

Jay Naidoo is photographed in August 2021 outside of Cape Town, South Africa.
Image: Barry Christianson for Global Citizen

It was when I was around 15 years old that I went, with my older brother, to a meeting with [Black Conciousness co-founder and anti-apartheid activist] Steve Biko, who was speaking at a crowded church hall in an area where I lived.

Hearing Biko say "the mind of the oppressed is the main weapon in the hands of the oppressor. You have nothing to lose but your chains,” ignited a spark in me, and that spark channelled my anger into a political cause. If we reflect today there is a lot of anger in our country still, similar to what I felt, but there is no channel to turn it into the productive anger that transforms our country to the dreams that we had in 1994.

When I went to university in 1975 I entered into the work of the South African Students Organisation, particularly because we had to attend an "ethinic university" for Indians. The notion in those days was that you are oppressed or not oppressed. There was a very clear line between Black and white, oppressed and oppressor, justice and injustice, and that’s what shaped me.

In 1976, along with the Soweto Uprisings, students around the country rose up — whether in high school or universities, we were in the streets in our numbers saying we want the end of apartheid. And we were smashed actually (by the state), but this is an important lesson for many generations. When we reflected on why we were smashed, we looked behind us and saw that we had left our parents, the workers, the women, rural people, and so in that period, that's when hundreds of us left university to commit ourselves to transformation and a revolution.

I joined the trade union movement as a volunteer. Being a volunteer was very important because I wasn’t asking someone for a stipend, or a T-shirt, and thank God Steve Biko never gave us a Powerpoint presentation, and that we didn’t have any money, because that’s the curse that destroys a lot of really spontaneous genuine authentic activism.

When that happens activism becomes professionalised civil society, which sometimes doesn’t know whether it’s part of the problem or part of the solution, which is the dilemma that now faces the younger generation. Out of the trade union movement, the 1980s were the most militant period of South Africa’s modern political history because we built a mass movement of trade unions, of women’s organisations, youth organisations, we mobilised the faith-based movements around liberation theology perspectives.

We worked in rural areas and we garnered the international support by capturing the imagination of people around the world that apartheid was a crime against humanity. And that’s what created the conditions in which Nelson Mandela was able to rise above constituencies and find common ground when we were all coming from very divergent positions.

Jay Naidoo

Jay Naidoo
Jay Naidoo voted in as secretary general, at the union federation, COSATU launch.
Paul Weinberg/South Photos/Africa Media Online

Jay Naidoo

Jay Naidoo
Jay Naidoo addresses strikers after ending a sit-in protest at the Department of Manpower offices in Johannesburg in 1990.
Robert Botha/Business Day/Africa Media Online

This is what the world faces today too; extremism in many senses, arrogance, the obsession with power rather than service, the ways in which we coerce people using culture, religion, and political and economic power to create an environment where young people around the world (even in the developed world) have lost trust in the institutions of democracy and democracy itself. Have lost trust even in the United Nations itself, even civil society.

So, we stand at the precipice of not just an ecological emergency, it coincides with the crisis of legitimacy, leadership, and democracy that is being compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. And we are at a point where we don’t have answers for anything and so what we should be doing at this moment is thinking, what are the right questions to ask? My advice to a young generation is; question everyone, question everything.

We are at a point where the entire system that holds this world together is in crisis. A crisis within ourselves because we are so divorced from who we are and we’ve lost touch with who we are. We are suffering an explosion of mental illness, of consumption, because we are searching for something and we don’t know where to find it. We are all searching for the answers to “Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human?”

How do we define success? Is it the consumption of more and more or is it about bringing it down to a simpler way of life where we see ourselves as custodians of a beautiful planet, Mother Earth, that gives us everything we need? We are here for a moment in time and we need to leave the world in a better place than we found it.

Just like in 1994, with Mandela and others, we committed to giving our people a better life and, if you look in the context of the violence of the unrest in July 2021, it’s not the failings of Mandela and me as an elder — because we promised you political freedom; the right of one person, one vote in a democratic, non-sexist, and non-racial South Africa, and then we created a safe container of a constitutional democracy that at its heart says we must address the legacy of apartheid.

If we haven’t done that in the over 20 years since Mandela left office then is it not our failure? The failure of those in power, of us as citizens who have become bystanders, expecting the government to do everything and where we give up our power to our leaders and what do they do with it? They abuse it.

These are the issues that I think face us today, but I think it is also a most exciting moment in the history of human evolution. My concern is not about the future of Mother Earth, in spite of our destruction, she's been here 4.5 billion years, she’s not going anywhere. She’s gone through five extinctions before.

For the first time, we human beings are responsible for creating an extinction event. We are slaughtering millions of species, we are cutting down our forests, poisoning our rivers, our soils and oceans, and we know that if we do not change we are going to go over the precipice and we don’t have a parachute.

Even for these super billionaires playing with their space toys while millions are poor and hungry, who act as if they’ll find another planet. There is no planet B, this is our home and so how do we protect ourselves and how do we understand that we are part of everything, we are a part of the planet and we are not more important than other species that exist on this planet. We are not more important than the trees, the rivers, the butterflies, and the mountains, but we can make choices.

We have the choice to be hateful or loving, tolerant or intolerant, just or unjust, and one of the biggest questions is whether we, as humanity, have earned the right to be here. What do we have to change in order to earn that right to be on this planet? Young people need to answer this and people like me who are elders can sit and share our experiences so they don’t make the same mistakes.

For young South Africans, the big struggle is to see the constitution implemented, because people cannot eat the constitution. Young people need to be asking, how do you organise yourself so that you are able to challenge an abuse of power, which is always the struggle for humanity. 

Compared to us, we were under a repressive regime which would not hesitate to arrest, detain, torture, or even kill. Our parents were terrified, particularly after the Mandela generation went to jail or exile. We had no donors offering us money to organise, we were volunteers so at the end of the day we had to make individual decisions and then we went out to find others making the same decision.

You gotta organise. We had a slogan: “Organise or starve”. In the context where young people have the ability to talk to one another, with the tools of the digital revolution and social media at their disposal, how do we use what we have to organise for a better life? And the question is never what are you fighting against, the question is what are you fighting for

Our freedoms were never won by leaders, they were won because people stood up and said they had had enough. That’s what we need to do right now; young people need to organise themselves for the world they want to see. And there are people like me as elders who will be standing right behind you.

"And the question is never what are you fighting against, the question is what are you fighting for?" writes South African activist Jay Naidoo.
Image: Barry Christianson for Global Citizen

If you're a writer, activist, or just have something to say, you can make submissions to Global Citizen's Contributing Writers Program by reaching out to contributors@globalcitizen.org.

In My Own Words

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