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Voting is one small part of what it takes to be an active citizen


Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

I was asked this week to put together a presentation on the work I do and how it ties in with the concept of active citizenry. It gave me time to pause and reflect on the significance of waking up every day and going to work with the specific aim of contributing to the furthering of this concept and why it is that I feel compelled to do this kind of work.

Active citizenry has become quite a “buzzword”, particularly in the past few years or so as the battle for the soul of South Africa was waged in an effort to dislodge it from the jaws of brazen State Capture. But it was a battle that was led by a few and understood by even fewer South Africans who occasionally checked the TV or their social media timelines for updates.

Truth is, the battle still continues and it is far from over. In fact, its full breadth and depth has yet to be uncovered. It was not simply a battle for “Zuma to Fall”, but rather a moment when South Africans had an opportunity to articulate the kind of leadership that they wanted.

The core principles of active citizenry are taking responsibility for ourselves and working towards maintaining a democratic society by equipping ourselves with the necessary knowledge, attitude and actions required to achieve this; and the pursuit of social justice and human rights as pivotal tenets of a democracy. But what does that really mean?

Critically, knowledge of your environment is very important because it informs you of what is happening around you and helps build your reasoning and problem-solving skills so that you can make informed decisions on whatever may arise.

When I was in primary school, my parents bought me encyclopedias with the express intention of broadening my knowledge of the world around me. And to ensure they didn’t just collect dust, I was set the daily task of choosing a letter and a section to read when I came back home from school and then telling them about it on their return from work. They would, of course, not just take what I told them at face value. They would probe and ask why I chose a particular section, whether I agreed with what was being said, how it related to me and why, etc.

At first, I could not understand why other children just got to do their homework then play and I had this additional task. But as time went by, I started to notice that my general knowledge and reasoning abilities were slightly different from that of my peers. This is what has informed my attitude towards seeking to understand the world I live in and, where necessary, challenge it to be better.

Our attitude towards our world is determined by knowledge or lack thereof, and whether you feel part of or estranged from this world. The danger of not having a knowledge base from which to depart is that you are left vulnerable to manipulation by others for their own agendas. If your knowledge base is robust and consistent, however, you start to question and require more from people and the world around you and are not likely to be easily coopted.

This brings me to the issue currently facing all South Africans of voting age: this year’s local government elections, arguably one of the most fraught elections we’ve had.

It seems the options at play are nostalgia, blind faith, or “anything is better than where we are”, which are all equally dangerous and short-sighted, to my mind. They are not the only options available if we take the time to interrogate the information available and ask whether the parties have been actively contributing to our democratic and constitutional ideals or detracting from them.

Active citizenry is not only about elections, political parties or mobilising from crisis to crisis. It requires one to go further than that. It needs long-term thinking, information gathering and action based on one’s historical understanding of our sociopolitical conditions that provides a context within which we can locate ourselves.

We can then ask the question of whether any of the parties currently vying for our votes are suited to take us towards the country we envision.

Voting is not all it takes to be an active citizen, it is only one small part. There is so much more. Being an active citizen includes the vigilance to hold those in power to account; the pursuit of social justice and a society in which we all – not just a few – thrive; the questioning of the decisions taken on the citizenry’s behalf; taking an interest in your community; as well as calling out injustice when you see it.

So then when the phrase “we get the leaders we deserve” is said, it simply means that how we have chosen to practise our active citizenry or not, is directly related to where we find ourselves. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Coen Gous says:

    Dear Zukiswa, please refer to my comment to Marianne’s article, which is basically similar to your own. Unfortunately, this election will be different to any before. Regardless of which party wins in whichever municipality, there will only be one outcome! The only winners will be the standing candidates, and the party(ies) they represent. The losers will be the citizens of this once beautiful country, regardless of whom they voted for!

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