Secretary-General and CEO,
Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Profile by Bindiya Patel, MPA '02
Tracing Kumi's biography
Kumi Naidoo became involved in the South African liberation struggle at the age of 15. As a result of his anti-apartheid activities, he was expelled from high school. He was deeply involved in neighborhood organization, youth work in his community, the underground movement, and mass mobilizations against the apartheid regime.
In 1986, he was arrested and charged for violating the state of emergency regulations. He went underground for one year before finally deciding to live in exile in England until 1989. During this time, he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and earned a doctorate in political sociology. After Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990, Kumi returned to South Africa to work on the legalization of the African National Congress. During the democratic elections 1994, he was the official spokesperson of the Independent Electoral Commission and directed the training of all electoral staff in the country.
Kumi became the founding executive director of the South African National NGO Coalition (SANGOCO), an umbrella agency for the South African NGO community. Provoked by the fact that South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women, Kumi organized the National Men's March Against Violence on Women and Children in 1997.
Since 1998, Kumi Naidoo has been the Secretary General and Chief Executive Officer of Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. With a small staff of 12, but a membership of more than 500 organizations and individuals from 97 countries, Civicus is dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.
Work on Women’s Issues
Kumi Naidoo is recognized internationally as a forceful advocate for gender equity and against gender violence.
He became interested and passionate about women’s issues through his work with the South African resistance movement through which he met women activists struggling for gender equity. In addition, he says, “For me, it was an intensely personal kind of thing. My mom committed suicide when I was 15. What she went through in her life has made an impact on the choices I have made in my own life.”
He organized South Africa’s first National Men's March Against Violence on Women and Children in 1996. He is an active board member of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development [http://www.awid.org]. Finally, in his numerous speaking and writing engagements, he strives to engage his audiences on women’s issues. “In any platform I am given, whether environmental, NGO law, voluntary organizations, whatever it is, at least 25 percent of my time is directed toward the issue of gender equity…I think it is very important that if you support the notion of democracy, then you must also support gender equity.”
As the Secretary-General and CEO of Civicus, Kumi’s responsibilities include:
1. Developing vision and strategy
2. Managing relations with the board
4. Representing the organization
When asked what he does on a day to day basis, Kumi described an intense schedule for October to December 2002 which included:
- Internal management work in Washington, D.C. and Johannesburg
- Meetings and speaking engagements in Montreal, New York, Mexico City, Morocco, Israel, Palestine, Dublin, Cleveland, Wales, and Seoul
- Fundraising in Washington, Europe, New York, and Tokyo
- Amidst all of his public engagements and travels, he will be fitting in dozens of conference calls, hundreds of informal meetings and phone calls, and thousands of emails. Such is the life of the head of an international NGO.
Advice for young people
Kumi believes that activists of any age need a number of skills. Communication is absolutely necessary. “To be a good resourceful value-adding activist, you need to be on top of technical skills” in order to access information quickly. One needs to be able to “read and analyze well, write well, and speak well.” He states that these are not necessarily naturally acquired skills and admits that he is constantly working hard at his own. He now writes a weekly column for the website, E-Civicus, and although it is just only one page, he struggles not less than 3 hours and would never consider posting it without getting feedback from his colleagues. He also adds that being able to speak more than one language is essential in activism.
Finally, Kumi strongly believes that “Learning is a life long process. The more you learn, the more you realize you have a lot more to learn.” He also states that it is essential to “Listen and learn from your peers, whether they have more or less experience. People who you think have less knowledge often ask the best questions. Your peers are the best people to help you understand what your limitations are.
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