Civil service: Our country’s history and blueprint demand that all of us be activists

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki. (Photo: EPA / KEVIN SUTHERLAND)

There is no reason children should not be encouraged during their school life orientation classes to aspire to the civil service or to being in service of their country.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

On 8 May, we marked 25 years since the adoption of our Constitution, widely acclaimed to be one of the most inclusive and progressive Constitutions in the world. It was the result of the collaborative efforts of men and women who reached beyond themselves in service of their country.

“The time had come to make a superhuman effort to respond to the call, to be other than human. To respond to the call to create for ourselves a glorious future,” said Thabo Mbeki in his rousing “I am an African” address to Parliament after the adoption of the Constitution in 1996.

Answering the call to public service is probably the highest honour a citizen can hope to achieve because it speaks to a show of solidarity with fellow citizens, a reaching beyond oneself.

This is not only the preserve of greats such as presidents and the custodians and drafters of the Constitution, but also of ordinary South Africans, working in whatever small way to better our country.

Collaboration is what democratic South Africa is built on – citizens who came together in a watershed moment of unified resistance against injustice. But, bigger than that was a sense of patriotism that bound everyone together towards a more inclusive future.

When I was growing up (in fact, even now), I felt really strongly that every citizen in South Africa should, at some point, dedicate three to five years of their working lives to public service. My reasoning is that the continued wellbeing and prosperity of a country is reliant on the collective and conscious effort of every citizen.

I feel that this would foster a sense of pride, patriotism and a sense of responsibility in ensuring that if we understand what it takes to build and run the country, we would act accordingly to guard against its demise.

It would create a sense of watchfulness and dispel the apathy some feel towards the politics of the state and its people by understanding that they are interconnected.

There is no reason children should not be encouraged during their school life orientation classes to aspire to the civil service or to being in service of their country in an endeavour to strengthen our society, something that is beyond the bounds of party politics.

Learning about human rights and social justice can only serve to shape better-adjusted citizens attuned to the importance of service to their country.

In his keynote address at the University of South Africa in 2015, former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke said: “Notionally, our Constitution is premised on the will of the people… The envisioned society sets itself firmly against poverty, ill health, ignorance.

“This it does by promising everyone the right to have adequate housing, healthcare, food, water and social security subject to available resources and progressive realisation. A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning it. And everyone has a right to basic education including adult basic education.”

Moseneke, a man who dedicated his life not only to the law but also to public service, went on to say that the Constitution enjoins and expects a transparent and accountable government, including Parliament, the executive and the courts.

Project South Africa belongs to all of us – we are all responsible for its continued success.

Electing state officials to office does not absolve us of the vigilance and active citizenry that is required to ensure that our “state is not captured”; that PPE contracts are not awarded irregularly while people’s lives hang in the balance during a pandemic; or that our most vulnerable children are not forced to contend with inadequate and dangerous sanitation in schools.

Similarly, relying on formal civil society organisations to play watchdog and put their bodies on the line against a government suspicious of civil society while we concern ourselves with only our individual lives is as ill-advised as it is unsustainable.

We can only harrumph and finger-point and pontificate so much before finally admitting that, in many ways, we are participants in our misfortunes. Although a state is meant to protect and create an enabling environment for its people to self-actualise, the people are equally enjoined to ensure that the state does not turn rogue.

When I worked in civil society, I was struck by the passion and empathy of people who voluntarily dedicate themselves to the betterment of others and, yet, somehow, I could not help but feel a sense of loneliness in the battles waged by these activists.

Although they fight the good fight anchored in the Constitution, there persists a sense of futility in that the law alone cannot sustain a country. There needs to be an agreed-on sense of goodwill, ethics and integrity among citizens that compels cooperation.

Our country’s history and blueprint demand that all of us be activists in our South Africanness and not to sit back on our laurels, hoping that others will safeguard our future. DM168

Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist at Maverick Citizen.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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  • Fantastic article, one of the best opinion pieces I’ve ever read on DM. No criticism, no stone throwing, just pure patriotism for a country, his country, and my country. So much to learn here, so much to reflect on, and even…so much to regret, and to hang heads in shame. Thank you Zukiswa