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Succession is also an issue for civil society

This is probably the last time some people will talk to me. For what I am about to say is well known in the sector and no one has dared say it publicly, at least in a systematic and sustained manner. Well, today I am going to.

I want to make it clear that what I am saying here is not fiction. This is real. We have known it in the political terrain. It has never been a surprise for political leaders to reject calls for succession. If it is not Mugabe and others who have overstayed their popularity, it is those that are grooming their sons and daughters to take over. As a matter of fact, they all do not want to relinquish power, period. It is as if the presidency is a family inheritance. There are very few cases where power has been resigned voluntarily. Mandela of course is exceptional.

Apparently in the corporate sector also, there is a problem with family businesses. Power is concentrated in one individual. There is no succession plan. Is it fair though to expect family businesses to develop succession plans? It would be fascinating talking about succession among family businesses. However, my agenda now is not so much that sector. I am more interested in the civil society sector where I understand there is a new trend of passing leadership roles from mothers to duaghters or fathers to sons, whatever the case might be.

I have been drawn into this as a result of two occasions, at least in the last weeks. The two are meetings that TrustAfrica convened: one in Dakar and the other in Naivasha. What was interesting about these meetings is that they were held not to discuss succession. However, in both proceedings, participants echoed each other about the succession challenge facing civil society organisations.

Let me break it down. There is a serious emerging problem of founders and chief executives of some of these organisations refusing to leave office or failing to groom their successors. In fact one participant in the Dakar meeting captured this rather sarcastically: ‘it is at times more difficult to replace a civil society leader from power than it is to replace Mugabe’.

This is of course exaggerated but if one looks at the civil society landscape, this statement has resonance. And yet ironically, these civil society leaders are more often the ones in the forefront calling for the replacement of political leaders. Shouldn’t they lead by example? Methinks they should, or else they lose the little moral authority left. And as the Naivasha meeting stated, ‘we must all realise that we are temporary custodians of the institutions we run’. The need to groom new leaders in the sector is more urgent now for many reasons.

First it is the right thing to do. Secondly, what will happen to the vibrancy and quality of leadership, governance and institutional capacity when all the current leaders are called back to the ‘heavenly father’? God forbid but they will be called one day. Third, as a watchdog, civil society must also lead by example. I know you are thinking of Mr X and Ms Y in organisation Z. Yes he has been there for a long time. She has no intention of leaving. Talk to them and hear their excuses.

I think we should be worried about the failure of succession within the civil society movement. Because if we are not, then we are doomed as a sector. Now if you think what I have said is not a serious matter, you need to think about the foundations world: that sector which we call philanthropy. Think about family and community foundations. In Africa, for example, there are numerous of these now from Cairo to Cape Town. Most of the family foundations are established by prominent individuals such as Nelson Mandela, Mo Ibrahim, Youssou N’Dour, Joachim Chissano and many others such as sports personalities. The greatest challenge will be to ask these guys to be replaced in their foundations. Again Mandela has been exceptional here too. I hear via the grapevine that he has already made an interview in which he stated that ‘he created the foundations to last beyond himself’. In a way this was to separate himself from the work that his foundations do.

Most often foundations and other organisations are known for their founder more than for their work. This separation must be made, and this can be the basis for a long and necessary discourse on succession in foundations. Will we see Mos, Youssous and Chissanos making a distinction between themselves and the work of their foundations? Some of you in the sector are already cursing me — I know it is a sensitive matter. We avoid it, we know it is a problem but we choose to see it in the political sphere only. We devise all kinds of tricks to remain in charge. Some of us even provided some insights to Putin.

There has been this trend among institutions for top executives to pretend that they have resigned from their posts and still retain a position in the organisation either as advisor or some sort of officer. Meanwhile they are the de facto directors. This is not succession: it is suppression of the new person. Others leave the organisation and still talk in meetings as if they were still running their previous institutions. They continue to overshadow their successors. Others flatly refuse to move.

It is for these reasons and many other sensitive ones that I think the issue of succession needs to be seen not just as a political problem but one that affects all facets of society.

It is also dangerous when it affects civil society and philanthropic institutions.


  • Bhekinkosi Moyo is trained in political science and currently shuttles between Southern Africa and West Africa. He works for TrustAfrica-a Pan African oriented foundation that works to secure the conditions for democratic governance and equitable development. In 2007, he edited a collection of chapters: Africa in Global Power Play. He has just completed editing an 18 country book on DisEnabling the Public Sphere: Civil Society Regulation in Africa.