“Active citizenry” is the current buzzword in South Africa, used not only by those in civil-society organisations, but also government, business, political parties and general society at large. It particularly caught on following the launch of the national development plan, which identifies active citizenship as a key priority “to lead us out of a governance crisis”.
The idea and power of active citizenry is very important, because no positive change can ever be made through passivity. However, as appealing as the idea of an active citizenry is, it is important to realise that it is a concept interpreted differently by different people. For some active citizenry amounts to anything that is anti-ANC, with ANC being used by some as a euphemism for black. For others active citizenry seems to amount to anything that is anti-government or even merely releasing endless press statements condemning one thing or another. The definitions are many, making it important that we clearly understand what people mean when they refer to active citizenry — lest we get drawn into furthering agendas that don’t really contribute positively to our communities and society at large.
It is also important that we interrogate how active citizenry plays itself out in South Africa. It increasingly seems that no matter how active citizenry is defined, for many the same unspoken rules thereof remain the same. These rules include:
— Active citizenry can only be carried out in English, which is evidenced by the way some chide others for not using opportunities to actively participate in decision making — clearly ignoring that this often carried out in English, thereby excluding a large number of South Africans.
— That it can only happen in certain ways, through workshops and a variety of other talk-shops which not only remain very exclusive, but also hardly ever go beyond the talk. This is evidenced by the press statements of “successful” engagements and the praise these talk-shops seem to garner, irrespective of the lack of clear outcomes that come from them.
— Active citizenry can only be facilitated by those clothed with degrees and accolades that result from the accident of their birth more than anything else. This can be seen by the way their gatherings are very often noted to be evidence of active citizenship, yet the many activities undertaken by those of lower status such as protests and the actions taken before this are hardly ever recognised as such — even when they do make a meaningful impact.
We need to be very wary of these unspoken rules and predefined definitions of active citizenry, because more than anything else they maintain the status quo which leads to social exclusion for a large number of South Africans. They also encourage talk-shops, where elite members of society are encouraged to passively accept ready-made plans, all claiming to want to “save South Africa”.
Without a doubt, none of us can afford to be passive with so many in the country living in inhumane circumstances; excluded both socially and economically, along with the other systematic failures experienced on a daily basis. Addressing this will require serious thought and effort at recreating and re-imaging South Africa. And this can only happen when we clearly define active citizenry and the terms of the activities accompanying it, remaining vigilant in ensuring that we understand what others mean when using that phrase. After all, time has shown us time and time again, language is never neutral and that falling for the “right” words can lead to us to becoming a part of the cycle that entrenches the very things we seek to overcome.