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Active citizenship needed to unlock South Africa’s potential

I know that there is great hype around the upcoming national and provincial elections this Wednesday, 29 May, some going as far as calling this our second 1994 – I get that.

But I think that we might be making too much of this and forgetting that what counts is what takes place between elections.

For some reason, we seem to think that voting is enough to bring about change, and we can then sit back as citizens and not wait for services to be delivered to us.

Or we think that a coalition government will be the saviour.

That we have left it to politicians to decide our fate and we simply capitulate to their whims is beyond me.

Sometimes I even hear the argument from academics that ‘I do not vote because it will legitimise the current corrupt system’, or ‘I want nothing to do with politics’ – yet politics has everything to do with you, every day.

Performance of municipalities

South Africa is blessed with a three-tier democracy.

Constitutional democracy spells out the Bill of Rights and the governance framework.

Representative democracy allows the space to elect political leaders through the ballot and, finally, participatory democracy calls for active participation between elections.

Locally, this is expressed in the co-creation of an integrated development plan with communities and ward committees – real grassroots governance.

However, this process has not been without fault, with many officials simply using this process as a tick-box exercise that makes a mockery of genuine participation that would bring dignity to contested spaces.

What is worse is the performance of our municipalities.

Let us take the Free State province as an example.

As reported by the Department of Cooperative Development, all 23 municipalities in the Free State are deemed dysfunctional.

Consequently, it is no wonder that not a single municipality has managed to attain a clean audit from the Auditor General in the past decade.

Ratings Afrika earlier reported that the financial situation of the Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality is so dire that it is struggling to pay its suppliers on time, while the provincial capital was also rated the worst metropolitan performer in the Good Governance Africa rating for 2023.

This is an inditement on the entire local governance system.

Active citizenship

The National Development Plan identifies active citizenship as the key ingredient to ensure that this democracy works.

Eve Ensler reminds us that an activist is someone who cannot but help fight for something.

That person is usually not motivated by a need for power, money, or fame but is in fact driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness, so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act or make it better.

Through my Great Governance ZA podcast, I found that there is no shortage of active citizens in our country.

Over the past three years, I have conversed with more than 100 passionate people.

In Bloemfontein, I crossed paths with Boeta Swart – his organisation Anchor of Hope gets the job done; in the Winnie Madikizela municipality, ethical leader Luvuyo Mahlaka runs a tight ship; and youth development champion and author, Frank Julie, generously shares his gifts and talents throughout the land.

There are so many untold stories.

Activists – need I remind you – are not just active during elections but work passionately in concert with others to make the world a better place.

The 2024 elections are important, yes, but the watershed election will be the 2026 local government elections when we will elect new ward councillors and ward committees.

And coalitions are here to stay, it is a natural consequence of the electoral system, says Professor Jaap de Visser of the Dullah Omar Institute.

The Sustainable Development Plan – specifically goal 16 – speaks to peace and justice and strong institutions through partnerships (goal 17).

Our future is partnerships – coalitions of people with the right heads, hearts and eager hands.

And, yes, sometimes we will be tested and called to work with people that we do not like, agree with, or trust as Adam Kahane puts it.

But that should not deter us.

Democracy is difficult work, a contact sport.

Make an even greater impact

Voting or participation in elections is a first step, but I am afraid this is not enough.

As an academic community specifically, we must use our privileged position in society to make an even greater impact, as advocated by the late Professor Bongani Mayosi, who argues that what matters most is service to society.

The National Development Plan concludes that a comprehensive, coordinated, multi-sectoral approach to development is required.

Such an approach must include partnerships between civil society, the private sector, government and the academia.

To make this coalition work will require buckets of good(will) and activism.

We are on the brink of the new. God helps us as we do and dare.

  • Dr Harlan Cloete is a pracademic and research fellow in the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies at the University of the Free State. He is the founder of theGreat Governance ZA podcast and founder member of community radio KC107.7 in Paarl in 1996.

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