Active Citizenship Matters

As the South African democracy crawls through adolescence and stumbles into adulthood, active citizenship has become a hot topic in civil society. This subject is reflected in the publication of the Good Governance Learning Network’s (GGLN) fifth annual State of Local Governance publication.
“Citizenship is profoundly political and deeply contextual,” states Mirjam van Donk, director of Isandla Institute. That context acts as a canvas on which identity is formed and citizenship is claimed, she adds.
“As we explored the notion of active citizenship over the past year, we realised that there is a normative slippage that can be quite dangerous. We had to examine our definitions of good citizenship. Do we include people on the margins? Do we have assumptions about certain populations? What do we see as an accepted modality of citizenship? Is it speaking in organised meetings? Is it taking to the streets?”
The National Development Plan views active citizenship as one of three cogs that need to work effectively to keep the wheels of development going. The other cogs are strong leadership and a capable state.
Mike Makwela from Planact told a story, with a more sceptical look at the intersection between active citizenship and the self-interest, which can motivate leaders’ actions.
On the surface, Eryka, about 30-km from Johannesburg, is an area where strong community leaders take the initiative by campaigning for basic services, better healthcare and upgrading projects. In reality, the main political leaders would not even sit in the same room and talk about the development of their own areas.
“What seemed to be active citizenship was just competing claims,” Makwela said, as he told the story of how the planned building of 1600 homes in the area degenerated into a dispute between the African National Congress, Democratic Alliance, the Informal Settlements Network (ISM) and Landless People’s Movement (LPM), which stalled all development. Planact was called in to mediate between the groups, and its report contains valuable caveats for any non-governmental organisation (NGO) wanting to avoid unintentionally becoming part of the underbelly of active citizenship.
The need for mediation may not be as acute if citizens learn to change the story that they are both hearing and telling.
Dr Rama Naidu from the Democracy Development Programme (DDP) spoke about the role of dialogue in building active citizenship.
“When people are given a chance to talk, they have the confidence and freedom to express themselves. Listening to what people have to say opens the door to harness the energies and capacities of communities,” he said.
Naidu continued by reflecting on the DPP’s work with 85 organisations. “But what is shifting?” he asked. “We have the same conversations over and over again, but nothing changes because we are stuck in our stories. We need to shift our methodology from being the experts who go to fix things to being co-creators of a different future, he adds.”
Naidu told delegates that one of the most valuable contributions to a dialogue is the freedom of dissent.
“To build trust we need to have a different methodology of engagement, one that is built on respect and trust and listening,” Van Donk commented.
Ownership of space and place is a vital component of active citizenship, according to Isandla Institute’s Tristan Görgens.
He called for the establishment of a series of Citizenship Academies, which would equip localised community groups, civil society organisations, state officials and politicians with relevant skills and information.
Africa Centre for Cities’ director, Edgar Pieterse, agreed that neighbourhood-level engagement was vital. In the light of what seems to be the ‘misfiring’ of participatory democracy, Pieterse proposed a virtuous cycle of neighbourhood improvement with “integrated community development systems that can generate rich social ecologies of work”.
Pieterse’s alternative concept of citizen empowerment includes four categories of community works: the care economy, green and public infrastructures, cultural, arts and sports services and public works.
Referring to the importance of the cultural, arts and sports services, he said “We need to make space for magic and wonder in the lives of all of our children. Take down the fences, make young people custodians of their own spaces. What stops us from imagining that?”
Bridgette Gasa from the National Planning Commission agreed. “It starts here. We need to get this right,” she said. Gasa was the keynote speaker and accepted the report from GGLN in her official capacity as Commissioner.
“Reducing poverty has been a goal for a long time,” says Gasa “The NDP has analysed the factors that cause poverty, and goes further than that. I believe the NDP enjoys support because we are on the right track. We want to start implementation, rather than striving for unity before we start implementation.”
According to Gasa, there is a disjuncture between policies and the funding for them. The commission wants to find ways to track spending and how it links to what is happening on the ground.
Gasa said an eye-opener for the committee had been how people interpret the rights enshrined in the constitution.
“It wasn’t so much that the system of local government wasn't functioning,” she said. “It was more about: 'I am not given space to influence that which is having an impact on my life. I need to be empowered in terms of how I will interact with the policy. I must have a say in decisions'.”
The paper by Elroy Paulus of the Black Sash presented some of the ways that this kind of active citizenship could become a reality. The organisation’s Community Monitoring and Advocacy project (CMAP) was implemented in all nine provinces in 2010-2012.
“The definition of active citizenry must not be based on the interpretation of the concept by a particular state,” he said. “With CMAP we are able to demonstrate how accountability, monitoring and advocacy can add stakeholder legitimacy to the state’s framework of active citizenship. The citizens realise that they are active holders of fundamental rights, not passive users of public services.”
The importance of this position of strength was emphasised by Lesego Loate of the Mvula Trust, whose work with the women of Strydkraal and Apel showed how active citizenship can be transient. He found that the women worked together and formed organisations but lacked collective agreement about how to work together.
“This lack of agreement weakened their capacity to engage with local officials and government,” he said. “The problem was that they tended to view their organisations as being in competition with each other, rather than having strength in numbers.
“Our citizens need to be empowered so they can engage with the municipalities from a position of strength,” he said, “but the state also needs to be able to engage with a citizenry that is not totally organised.”
Bava pointed out that active citizenship is not only to ensure rights that are already defined. In Brazil there is a movement of lawyers which looks for the 'rights we find in the street' which are created by social mobilisations.

A PDF copy of Active Citizenship Matters is available at:

Gabeba Gaidien
Tel: 021 683 7903
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