In support of an ‘active citizenry’

Active citizenry is definitely trending as an idea. Everyone, from Kgalema Motlanthe to Mamphele Ramphela is talking about it. So what is it and why is it so important?

Speaking at a leadSA breakfast on 3 August, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is reported to have said: “We have to break our silence by doing what is morally right and ethically right. In this regard, the failure to deliver workbooks and textbooks is indicative of a passive citizenry whose silence is complicit in the commission of such a tragic folly. Ordinarily, the commission of such a failure would have prompted an active citizenry to call for action as far back as January.” (City Press, 3 August)

At a conference in Cape Town on 3 September, Trevor Manuel stated, correctly, that ‘transformation cannot be outsourced to government’ (The Times, 5 September). He goes on to spell out three ‘agencies’ necessary for transformation: an active citizenry, leadership, and effective government – the first, and perhaps the most important of these is an active citizenry, he said. The National Planning Commission under his guidance included the concept in the National Development Plan (which has been adopted by Cabinet).

In March 2012, Mamphele Ramphela said that ‘no democracy in the world would survive without active citizens’ and she has made similar observations many times since. She particularly wants people to be active citizens in order to hold government accountable.

Manuel is right that active citizenship is a very critical agency. But if there is a lack of responsive leadership and if government is not effective, citizens attempting to be active will get more and more frustrated and lapse into passivity. Either that or active citizenry will be characterised by violent, destructive protest, such as we are currently seeing across the country, as people get tired of their interactions with government bearing no fruit.

Motlanthe’s comments regarding the Limpopo textbook saga beg the question: were there really no ‘active citizens’ in Limpopo taking up the issue of the missing textbooks or did those who tried – perhaps some of the School Governing Bodies in the province – get an unsympathetic response, if they got a response at all?

I am able to speak on this issue from personal experience, having been part of an increasingly frustrating attempt to drive a development programme in Yeoville Bellevue in Johannesburg over the past 15 years. This is not to say that my ‘active citizenry’ is not acknowledged and welcomed by some of those with whom we engage. However, if the organisation I work for was to have received R1 000 for every time I have been congratulated for my ‘passion’, my ‘commitment’, my ‘dedication’, and my ‘example to others’, it would have enough money and resources to achieve wonders. If, in addition, we had received proper support and funding every time someone decided that Yeoville Bellevue could be ‘a pilot’ for development in other inner city areas, we could by now have implemented a number of innovative and progressive solutions for our area and other areas facing similar challenges.

Instead, most of the plaudits remain just that – with little or no support or capacitation. What’s more, we often find that the responses to our interventions are met with active hostility.

This hostility is often defensive in the case of government officials (including the SAPS) who feel that interventions by civil society are a direct attack on their own performance rather than a genuine attempt to work in partnership with the state. This response is often backed up by the assertion that officials are ‘experts’ and the community cannot advise them or tell them ‘how to do their jobs’.

Hostility is also often an aggressive response by gatekeepers in communities – ward councillors, political parties, statutory structures – who feel that they have a monopoly on ‘community organisation’ and ‘development’ and that any initiatives not sanctioned and driven by them must be undermined and prevented from continuing. They too seem unable to grasp that development is a participatory process which should involve all stakeholders and must be driven in partnership.

This lack of support, coupled with ineffective governance, can have unwelcome consequences. In July, I was sent an SMS threatening me, my family and my colleagues and telling me to move out of the area. A fellow active citizen, Rev Tsepo Matubatuba, had a restraining order brought against him by a person who has broken the law by establishing an unauthorised business in a residential area. It is a lack of leadership and effective governance that has created conditions where these things can be done with impunity, discouraging others from becoming active citizens for fear of having similar things happen to them.

I think it may be useful to look at the concept of ‘social capital’ when considering the issue of active citizenry.

In its most basic form, the notion of ‘social capital’, as advanced by Robert Putnam, refers to ‘the connections between individuals –social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them’. He says that a ‘civic’ community will have ‘high levels of cooperation, trust, reciprocity, civic engagement and collective well-being’ and that these traits are usually self-reinforcing. In other words, a civic community is likely, unless affected by one or other adverse condition, to continue being a civic community and to manifest those traits.

An ‘uncivic community’, on the other hand, will manifest characteristics such as ‘defection, distrust, shirking, exploitation, isolation, disorder and stagnation’. These characteristics will be equally reinforcing  and ‘intensify one another in a suffocating miasma of vicious circles’. An uncivic community will not be a developing community and pro-active steps would need to be taken to correct that reality and to move towards the more ‘virtuous circles’ of a civic community with positive social capital.

I would argue, therefore, that if we want an ‘active citizenry’ (and, especially in the context of Yeoville Bellevue, I use the term ‘citizenry’ very broadly to include non-South Africans who form a large part of the community), then we have to increase the potential of ‘social capital’ in our communities to make a meaningful contribution to the development of their neighbourhoods and to the country as a whole.

I suggest then that, for an ‘active citizenry’ to flourish and to make its contribution to society, certain enabling conditions must be in place. These include a recognition that everyone, regardless of their political affiliation or their national origin, has a right to participate; that all roleplayers are accountable to each other for what they do; that financial and other mechanisms are put in place to support community initiatives, especially in less-advantaged areas; that there is an atmosphere of openness and innovation, in which people are encouraged to speak freely and propose creative solutions; that government and the state deliver on their basic mandates, ie to deliver services, to enforce the law and to govern effectively; that government and the state communicate with and listen to the citizenry; that government and the state set an example to citizenry through their own practise, ie by eradicating corruption, self-interest and laziness in its own ranks, thereby encouraging honesty, commitment and voluntarism in the citizenry; that leadership across the board guide the country by example through practising what is ‘morally right and ethically right’.

It those conditions are not in place, citizens will lose the incentive to be active, passively accepting their reality and withdrawing into a narrow, introspective life of self-interest and survival (though perhaps manifesting their dissatisfaction at the ballot box) – or they will take to the streets in order to vent their anger and frustration.

PS: as I write, we are still waiting for a response, three months later, to a memorandum that we handed to the Department of Community Safety, the Gauteng Liquor Board, and the City of Johannesburg during a community march on 18 August 2012. Is this the way to encourage active citizenry?

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