Last month, we celebrated Malala Day and Mandela Day: two incredible changemakers who have dedicated their lives to fighting injustice. As part of the celebrations, we composed a list of 10 well-known activists who lead, educate, and inspire us to change the world and asked ONE supporters to vote for their favourite.
Over 1,500 supporters across Africa cast their votes. Here are the top three activists they chose:
In first place with 32% of the votes is South African anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela.
In second place is Pakistani activist for girls’ education Malala Yousafzai with 18% of votes.
And in close third place is Nigerian political activist and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti with 16%.
Read about all the incredible activists who made the list below.
Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for girls’ education
Malala Yousafzai was born on July 12, 1997, in Mingora, Pakistan. Malala’s father, a teacher who ran a girls’ school, was keen on giving his daughter every opportunity possible. As such, she attended school, until the Taliban took control of her city and forbade girls from doing so.
From that moment onwards, Malala decided to publicly speak out against this prohibition. This made her a target, and in October 2012, at the age of 15, on her way home from school, she survived an assassination attempt after getting shot on the left side of her head.
After months of treatments and hospital visits in the UK, where she was treated, Malala created the Malala Fund, “a charity dedicated to giving every girl an opportunity to achieve a future she chooses.” In 2014, Malala and Kailash Satyarthi were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for their work on the behalf of children’s rights.
Nelson Mandela, a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, South Africa. Throughout his life and imprisonment, Mandela became a symbol of resistance and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Later in life, on May 10, 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first black president. During his presidency, Mandela worked to reconcile the country and protect the South African economy, whilst writing a new constitution that established a strong central government based on majority rule and guaranteeing both the rights of minorities and the freedom of expression.
After retiring from political life in 1999, Mandela remained committed to raising money to build schools in South Africa and became involved in the fight against AIDS, after his son passed away from the disease. Mandela died on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95, in his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, but his legacy lives on through his lifelong activism work.
Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist campaigning on climate change
Greta Thunberg was 15 when she won an essay competition on climate change in her local newspaper. Shortly after, she protested to pressure the Swedish Parliament to meet the carbon emissions target set by the Paris Agreement in 2015. From that moment onwards, she regularly skipped school on Fridays to protest and encouraged students around the world to do the same.
In August 2019, she officially took a year off school to focus on campaigning by attending conferences, joining protests around the world, and meeting key leaders to raise awareness surrounding climate change and its impact on developing countries. In 2019, during the UN Climate Conference, she delivered her famous speech on climate change. Now throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, her activism has been taken online.
Desmond Tutu, a South African cleric and anti-apartheid and anti-poverty activist
Born in 1931 in Klerksdorp, Desmond Tutu is best known for his anti-apartheid and anti-poverty activism. Starting his career as a school teacher, Tutu’s career in the clergy began in 1961 when he became an Anglican priest. In 1975, he was the first black South African to be appointed the dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral. In the 1980s, Tutu drew global attention to the “iniquities of apartheid.” He then received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1984 for his work fighting apartheid, and in 1995, was appointed the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under President Nelson Mandela.
Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate justice activist
At just 24 years old, Vanessa Nakate’s activism work is extensive. As the founder of the Rise Up Movement, she works to raise awareness on climate change and its impacts. She leads the campaign to save the Congo’s rainforest and is the driving force behind the Green Schools project, which is working to install environmentally friendly stoves and solar panels in schools throughout Uganda.
Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister and social activist who led the U.S. civil rights movement
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in January 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, and participated in activism throughout his life. Notably, in December 1955, he took the leadership of the first nonviolent demonstration in the United States against segregation, which was a bus boycott that lasted for 382 days. Between 1957 and 1968, King traveled around the US to protest injustice and take action, and in 1963, he directed the historic march on Washington, D.C., where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. On April 4, 1968, however, King was assassinated on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, but his legacy lives on through the activism work.
Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister and president of Ghana and advocate of Pan-Africanism
Born in Ghana in September 1909, Kwame Nkrumah studied politics in the US at Lincoln University in 1935. He also became the president of the African Students’ Organization of the US and Canada. He was the leading force behind the 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester after traveling to England in 1945.
He returned to Ghana in 1947and served as the United Gold Coast Convention’s general secretary. He led Ghana’s movement to become an independent nation, and became Ghana’s first prime minister in 1952 and then the first president in 1960 after Ghana became an independent republic.
Aboubakar Soumahoro, an Ivorian/Italian trade unionist and advocate for migrant workers’ rights
Aboubakar Soumahoro is an Ivorian and Italian trade unionist, whose activism is drawing attention to migrant workers’ rights. Originally from the Ivory Coast, having moved to Italy as a teenager, Aboubakar is the head farmworker coordinator for the Unione Sindacaledi Base, which was founded in 2010. He is the lead behind a strike in Italian fields, where many migrant workers work for just €3 an hour, and promotes his activism via social media.
Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general and co-recipient of Nobel Peace Prize 2001
Born in1938, Kofi Annan served as the 7th secretary-general of the UN from 1997-2006. During his time as secretary-general, he worked on “revitalizing the United Nations and making the international system more effective.” Throughout his career, he resolved a dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon regarding the Bakassi peninsula, was a part of the creation of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and more diplomatic work.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, political activist, and Pan-Africanist
As the mastermind behind the Afro-beat music style, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1938. The Afro-beat style came to be following experimentation with the group Koola Lobitos. Influenced by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, however, his music took a political turn as it “decried oppression by Nigeria’s military government,” and in 1979, he founded the Movement of the People political party.