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Interview Q and A with Masego The Trust CEO

1. Congratulations on your recent appointment as CEO at The Trust. What are you most looking forward to in this position?
I’m quite excited to be a part of a civil society organisation that does a good job of diagnosing the problems behind poverty and inequality in Southern Africa and strives to find solutions to those problems. The Southern Africa Trust is a really great organisation. For me, it’s really that space of being an interlocutor and providing an interface for marginalised voices to have an impact in the policy space that I find to be most valuable. The Trust’s ability to work at a national level, with social movements and also the ability to engage directly with governments at the SADC level is an important role. I’m excited to be working alongside citizens, governments and the private sector, to find solutions that are relevant for the region.

2. Can you share a bit about yourself, who is Masego?
That’s an interesting question. Often when we are asked who we are; we talk about what we do. So, I’m actually going to start by talking about who I am.

I’m a mother of two young girls, one is 17 and the other is 7. I think it’s a very exciting time to be raising young women. While a lot remains to be achieved in terms of women’s rights, I think it is a time for women and youth. Young people and women are achieving great things and they no longer have to stay in the background. It’s very rewarding to watch my two young daughters grow up to be confident and able to stand in their power. This being based on the struggles of many women who have come before them, gives them an opportunity to win. To actually watch them be in a position to voice their aspirations and express themselves without ever doubting themselves is quite rewarding. I’m proud to be a mother of two very strong girls that are growing in my household and it’s gratifying to be able to point them to a host of African women as role models and mentors.

On the work front, I come from an environment, conservation and rural development background. My career path has actually been rooted in working with rural movements that were always fighting for the rights of communities within a protected area and their right to development and sustainable livelihoods. I subsequently moved into the human rights space with the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA), where I worked on questions of economic rights, socio-economic rights and economic justice.

In a nut-shell, I would say the development space in southern Africa has been instrumental in shaping my career. I’ve been working mainly in the social policy field and always going back to the question of the political economy of development in Southern Africa and in the region. I’ve been an instrumental part of organisations, movements and people that are fighting for inclusive development in southern Africa and the rest of the continent. Not shy to push and ask questions around ‘what kind of development are we talking about and development for whose benefit? Who is shaping the direction of policies and programs and the discourse? Who gets to have a say and how do we ensure that those who are marginalised and sit at the periphery of our economies and our political systems have the space to also shape the future that we want for our region?’ I would really describe myself as a social justice activist and practitioner in the development and economic justice space.

3. What is it about the Southern Africa Trust that resonates with what you aim to achieve in Africa?
There are a number of things that resonate. The ability to influence policy is one. It is a question of influencing policy to what end and for whose benefit. When asked about what attracted me to the Trust, there are two areas that I often cite. First, the work the Trust has been able to do with the mining communities – The ex-miners on the portability of social protection benefits. Making sure that insurance and pension benefits which remained unclaimed for several years make their way to the rightful beneficiaries. Most of these beneficiaries are migrant workers, who came to work in South Africa in the mining sector and have subsequently gone back home but were not able to tap into their benefits because the insurance companies were claiming that they were unable to trace them. We’ve known for a long time that, there was a problem and a lot of organisations had spent a lot of time highlighting the extent of the problem but had not been a part of the solution seeking agenda.

Second, the Trust’s ability to have been able to engage and get into conversations with the insurance companies, with the ex-miner’s associations and with institutions and going further to trace the beneficiaries, those who are still alive and in cases where people have since passed on, to then go further and work with the group of widows to claim their benefits. Seeing those stories being translated to real impact in terms of the lives of everyday citizens is really inspiring.

I’m also inspired by the work that the Trust does with small holder farming communities; and being able to work with businesses to think about how to structure the benefits of smallholder farmers throughout the value chain of that industry.

Recently, the Trust, working with the SADC Secretariat, the NEPAD Business Foundation and national business associations, was able to set up the SADC Business Council. The main aim now is getting small, medium enterprises into that platform. To make connections between the smaller businesses with more established businesses for purposes of facilitating access to markets, access to capacity, access to finance and access to technical capacity in areas that they may not have. Again, it is the whole approach of finding practical solutions that have policy resonance, demonstrating in a very practical and tangible way what can be done to reduce poverty.

The other thing that I find really encouraging about the work the Trust is doing, is also the belief that our democracies will be meaningful and will deliver for citizens and the poor if we have active and very strong civil society organisations. Part of the Trust’s mandate is to build the capacity of civil society in the region. We have set up our office space in such a way that it becomes a platform and a space for convening for civil society, bringing together collective voices, building solidarity but also doing it in such a way that other civil society are able to access knowledge products, research on the state of development so that the CSO advocacy efforts are backed up by evidence. That whole idea of being able to work through various circles of policy making and connecting policy and practice with voices on the ground is a really powerful model.

4. What defines an exceptional leader?
I think it’s an important question for the times we live in; we’re all trying to understand what an exceptional leader is. I think in our civil society context; ethical leadership is very important. Ethical in the sense that we have to be accountable for the resources we’re entrusted; ethical in terms of living our principles, the principles we want to see out there. These are: principles of accountability, fairness, dignity, the representation we call out for, voice and visibility that we ask of our government.

We need to reflect these internally within our own organisations. One of the things we often decry is that of inter-generational capacity and as the Trust, how we position ourselves even within as a leader, what space to provide for young people to be able to grow in the space and take up positions of leadership. I think in this highly volatile world we live in, where we’re dealing with multiple crises in our economic systems and political systems and sometimes even at a personal level, it’s very important for a leader to have empathy. People in leadership need to have self-management skills and high levels of self-awareness. By understanding ourselves better we can manage how we show up in the world, how we’re showing up to colleagues and how we lead teams. I think empathy, understanding, tolerance and appreciation of diversity, is really something important for a leader of our time.

5. When you’re not at the office doing the Trust’s work, where is one likely to bump into you?
You would definitely bump into me in creative and literacy spaces. I love books, art, music and African fashion. You’ll find me at markets talking to crafters. The art work that comes out of our continent is really amazing. One of the things I do in every country I visit, is I always make time to go to the markets, because I want to understand people through their cultural expressions and there’s no better place than informal food, art and craft markets for that. I also love music, where there’s live music Afro Jazz, you’re likely to find me there. I love books; I’m a member of a very vibrant women’s book club. You’ll find me at a lot of book launches around the city of Joburg, and in the coffee shops. So, if there’s a combination of books, coffee and live music, you’ll most likely find me there.

6. How would you encourage young people who wish to work in similar spaces/for similar organisations?
I think volunteering is quite important. Take time to read, engage and attend public events.

I’ll tell you why I talk about volunteering; it got me to where I am. I started off immediately after high school, I did one year of what was National Service in Botswana at that time, and this was really a volunteer service where you would get to work in a public sector for a year on a very minimum living allowance. I was sent to a rural area in northern Botswana, and for the first time in my life, I lived in a rural space on a continuous basis for a year. I taught in a high school. I was 17 years old. For the first time, I was able to see for myself the inequalities in terms of the quality of services that one enjoys in our typical countries between urban and rural areas. I was also confronted by my own privilege and things that I have taken for granted. Here I was, a seventeen-year-old, teaching Geography (it was called Social Sciences at the time), and English Literature to students who were my age mates, who were still at school because of their background and access issues they had encountered in their earlier lives. I was seventeen and done with my “O” levels and preparing for university.

So that spirit of volunteerism and giving yourself space to learn, especially in areas that you know are aligned with your career path is really important. When I went to university, in my first year, I volunteered at an organisation called the International Union for Conservation of Nature. I volunteered there as a personal assistant to the country’s representative at the time. Every vacation I was working at this organisation. Sometimes the Country Representative would have work for me to do and sometimes there was no work for me at all, but I would still go into the office every day and I would volunteer to sort out the resource centre, volunteer to write an article or two and so forth. I got exposed to different areas of knowledge and different career paths within the Environmental Sciences and Conservation space. Later on, when I graduated, it made it much easier for me to find a job. I had a CV, I had a track record, but [volunteering] really made it easier for me to really think about the kind of career that I could pursue.

I think it’s really important for you to gain exposure through volunteering, internships, and reading as widely as possible. Identifying mentors, and having a mentor for me has really been very valuable throughout and I still have mentors up to now. I recognised that there were people that I admired and established in the field and I took it upon myself to be their understudy. I’m on a lifelong learning journey and as I speak; there are people who have been in the space of leadership longer than I have. I continue to study them and regard them as my mentors. I think learning is a continuous journey and it doesn’t have to be formal and structured, but you have to have a yearning to ask questions: Why, What If, What Else, How, Where? That and being inquisitive and be alive.

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