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Under Gaia’s Skin

20th Annual Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture
April 15, 2021

Jay Naidoo

Video   |   Viewpoint  |   Full Transcript  |   Abridged Transcript  |  Program

Healing the Wounds

BALTIMORE—April 22, 2021. “There is no room for melancholy,” said Jay Naidoo, urging his audience to dare, to be bold, and to give their lives for freedom.

Naidoo, a South African anti-apartheid and anti-hunger activist, delivered this message as a guest of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s 20th Annual Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture. In his talk, he encouraged his listeners to ignore the bureaucratic mechanisms that masquerade as tools of progress—PowerPoint presentations, business plans, road maps, and log-frames—and instead ask questions and search for new answers.

“Question everyone. Question everything,” he said.

For healing the wounds left by slavery and colonization, he warned that there is no messiah, no “self-appointed guru” who will lead us toward reconciliation. His list of people and institutions to ignore and avoid included “elites in government, … the one-percent clubs in Davos, the aristocracy of civil society, and academia.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, when he was General Secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which he helped to launch in 1985 at the height of the struggle against apartheid, both Naidoo’s office and home were raided in coordinated police actions. It was a time during which police intimidation of such organizations and their members was common, and included arrests of union members and officials, bans on protests, surveillance, and withholding of passports. In 1990, Naidoo was detained by South African police and charged with kidnapping a person whom he and colleagues suspected of spying on COSATU. (He and two colleagues, having no faith in the police, took it upon themselves to apprehend the spy; they were released on bail.) It was a time when the national police regularly ignored complaints of harassment and assault against union members and members of the African National Congress. During that same time, secret military units targeted anti-apartheid church, labor and political leaders, including Naidoo and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for harassment, intimidation, bombings, and even assassination.

A 1992 article in the Los Angeles Times, titled “Jay Naidoo Strikes Fear in S. African Big Business Because He Is the Voice of the Workers,” described him as an ethnic Indian leading a mainly Black labor federation, and suggested that his “militant talk … his commitment to socialist ideals, and his intolerance for big business” made him an unwelcome figure among white corporate circles in South Africa.  Despite this perception held by some, Naidoo found ways to connect with white businessmen in the country, and he played a key role in negotiations that led to changes in the country’s labor laws.

His focus at the 20th Annual CLF Dodge Lecture was on reconciliation, and on healing the wounds of dispossession, slavery, and colonization. Healing must go beyond what we say and what we give back, he said; it must involve listening.

“How do we deal with the legacy of dispossession?” he asked. “Reconciliation is not a one-way street. Acknowledgment is important. So is an apology. … And redress is not just material compensation and reparations, either, or even the right to vote. It’s about whether we see the Other. Do I listen with my heart to the voices of the Other? Do I try to understand the language, the culture, the ceremonies and belief system of the Other?”

At this especially polarized time in our nation’s history, Naidoo’s advice to listen with an open heart to the “other” might seem like a significant challenge. In apartheid South Africa, he found a way to connect and negotiate with white business leaders. In 2021, an era he describes as the “eye of a perfect storm,” is there a way to connect with people who resist change? There is heated, sometimes vicious debate over linchpin issues in the United States such as presidential election results from November and protective measures regarding the novel coronavirus, including the safety of new vaccines. With such vehement disagreement—and offense taken—on each end of the debate, one might ask Naidoo, How does one open one’s heart to the “other” side?

In his talk, Naidoo seemed confident that young people will find a way. He called upon them to listen with their hearts and lead the way toward positive change. He was 15 when he was inspired by activist Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1976, the Soweto uprising—a series of demonstrations and protests led by black school children—was met with extreme police brutality, but changed the country’s landscape and laid the groundwork for putting Nelson Mandela in power as the first democratically elected leader of South Africa.

“Sekunjalo ke Nako! Now is the time,” he said. “Now is the time for your generation. … Elderly people like me will stand behind you in our thousands.”

Naidoo was invited to give the Dodge Lecture by CLF Director Martin Bloem; they have worked together for decades as anti-hunger advocates through UN agencies and other organizations. Familiar with the challenges of the industrial agriculture, Naidoo extoled the virtues of regenerative agricultural systems that acknowledge the beneficial relationships between plants and animals. Within regenerative agriculture are many forms of knowledge preserved by indigenous cultures for millennia to preserve and improve soil health and help farmers weather the weather.

“We’re at war with our soil,” he said. “Our food system is certainly broken.”

Regenerative systems will retain water and strengthen the soil, will keep carbon in the ground, and restore human connection with the Earth. Africa, he said, where the majority of small-holder farmers are women, can be a model for the world, given the right conditions. Supporting programs that enable women to own their farms, investing in microfinance operations that support women building seed banks, and working toward fair prices for crops are a few of the measures necessary to achieve this goal.

“The pursuit of a regenerative model of agriculture is one of the most important ways we heal ourselves,” Naidoo said, “and heal our relationship with Mother Earth.”

A full transcript of Jay Naidoo’s talk is available here, and an abridged version here.