‘Active citizenship’ is a new buzzword – or buzz-phrase – doing the rounds. But as much as the country needs its citizens to step up and make changes, looking at all of developmental needs and baggage from colonialism and Apartheid, the strongest vehicle for structural change and development still remains the state.
The term “active citizenship” is fast becoming more popular in our national discourse. It is particularly promoted by government and found in documents such as the National Development Plan. Tied to this term is the message that every South African has to contribute to our collective development.
A notable vehicle for this has been through the campaign that is being promoted by Brand South Africa in their television show called Play Your Part SA. On the one hand this is all good and well, because the development of any country relies on the symbiotic relationship between the state and its citizens. Indeed, it is true that ALL of us need to contribute towards the development of each other and the country. However, as government actively promotes this message of active citizenship, it is also important that it practises some self-reflection. It needs to realise that it too should play its part, in which it has been severely lacking.
There is a strong lack of accountability and delivery, especially at rural, township and peri-urban levels, which I have personally witnessed in an inspiring local community in Kieskammahook in the rural Eastern Cape. This rural community is actively developing themselves and their community, with and beyond the state.
But before discussing that, let’s backtrack a little. In this video for the The National Development Plan, Trevor Manuel says:
“the notion that the state delivers and everyone waits for the state to deliver doesn’t work well in a democracy. People must know their rights and participate…People cannot just sit back and say ‘Oh well, government hasn’t done this, government has done this yet’ or believe they can only resolve issues by the occasional toyi-toying.”
The tone and message that Manuel is promoting is a part of a narrative that has grown in post-Apartheid South Africa, both from the government and historically privileged white South Africans. This narrative says the poor have a “culture of entitlement” and that particularly poor and marginalised people are lazy and want to be “dependent” on the government. It is a narrative that says that people want to receive ‘free this and free that’ from the government and when the government doesn’t meet their needs they embark on “the occasional toyi-toying”. When the government was embarking on its privatisation mission of basic services, Manuel was there, again pushing the narrative that people should not demand free basic services.
It goes without saying that the ANC government had a lot of work to do to reverse systemic inequalities from our history as the first democratic government. It had to work to reverse centuries of abuse by a racist, sexist and economically exploitative system of colonialism and Apartheid. This is a system that privileged a white minority at the expense and by the blood of a black majority.
There were plenty of expectations among the majority that things would be better, especially their socio-economic realities. We have a Bill of Rights which prioritises socio-economic rights including education, water and sanitation, health care and housing. Headway has been made in their delivery, especially the electrification of households and delivering water to former “Bantustans” along with the income grants that have lifted millions of South Africans from extreme poverty. Yet far too many are living in squatter camps, dying in our hospitals, or still lacking access to proper water and sanitation.
So whose job is it to fix all these structural problems? At his recent talk at Wits University, Mazibuko Jara highlighted in his talk “Change from Below: the People and the State” that how one answers this question largely depends on one’s view of the state, which in turn is influenced by one’s own politics. He noted that, for instance, if you are someone who comes from the Left, then you necessarily have a certain view and understanding of the state and what it is meant to do, especially as it relates to the distribution of public goods and their facilitation of transformation. In our context, undeniably, the ANC government is far from the Left in its actions, but has labelled itself as the “vanguard of the poor” promising to deliver on their socio-economic needs. It has labelled itself as “people-centred and people-driven”; however, as Ben Turok points out in his book With My Head above the Parapet: An Insider’s Account of the ANC in Power:
“There is abundant evidence of the consequences of pretending to promote transformation while standing still… What we have are empty references to ‘people-centred and people-driven’ programmes, with only token mechanisms of implementation and scant practice of the kind of community involvement that is a prerequisite for sustainable development.”
In the Eastern Cape at the beginning of this year, before the national elections, this pretence was uncovered. It was uncovered by a growing grassroots movement in Kieskammahoek in the Eastern Cape called Ntinga Ntaba Kandoda, which is made up of thirteen local villages. They are a movement consisting of many people including farmers, teachers, students, young activists and elders. They are building their own community from the ground up, through farming, improving education and educational outcomes for the lived experiences of rural learners (who have few teachers, and run-down schools with inadequate infrastructure). They are using the skills of unemployed young people to become community organisers, to use their talent and skills in art, for instance, to develop themselves and their community. As academic and activist Melanie Samson describes Ntinga, this is a “community [that is] self-organising and [is] also not letting the state off the hook”.
The Big Debate shot a mini-documentary showcasing the challenges of this community of people who dispel the myth that poor black South Africans are entitled, lazy and want ‘free this and free that’ from the government. People like Nomonde Ngalo, who started a pre-school in 1985 because she saw a need in her community. At that time people worked in the fields and factories and there was no pre-school in her community. Parents would have no care for their children when going to work. She started her school with nothing. She accepted small irregular donations from the parents and she would even take food from her own parents’ house to feed the children. In Xhosa, she says “[i]t’s really important for children to go to school, so that in the future they can live a better life, so they don’t have to live the same life of poverty.” She has been trying to get sustained government support for 30 years. Although she has received irregular small contributions from government, the children are not part of any feeding scheme and the building where they study could collapse at any time.
Nomonde’s only form of sustenance is the R520 monthly “income” she receives from the Community Public Works Programme. But that doesn’t discourage her. She goes on to say, “I asked myself if I would stop taking care of the children, due to a lack of funding…I decided to continue because I love the children.” Now, Nomonde is undeniably an exemplary active citizen. She has educated and cared for hundreds, if not thousands, of this country’s children. Watching the documentary, you will clearly see that the government has not played its part. It has not met a citizen who is making their job easier half-way.
There are plenty of other examples of active citizens like Nomonde, all of whose stories we couldn’t document. However, one other is Sanele Zitha, aged just 17. The Grade 11 scholar wanted to study medicine but because her school didn’t have a science teacher or a lab, she gave up her dream. She now works as a youth activist in her community and made a striking point when she said: “I think as black people, we can use our own resources. We don’t have to only look on the government, because we [keep] seeing that the government is not looking after our communities”. She added, “Yeah, I’m giving up [on the government], but if they come, we will accept them.” This speaks to the reality that people are looking for ways to develop outside of the state.
Looking at all of developmental needs and baggage from colonialism and Apartheid, the strongest vehicle for structural change and development still remains the state. We therefore need to engage, work and challenge the state to build our country, until we can work beyond it. The government has decreed that it wants to create “empowered” and “self-supportive” citizens. But, dear government, please can you create the necessary environment for us to be these active citizens? DM
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