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Citizens, not sitizens, please: more than ever, South Africans must take charge

- Associate Professor William Gumede

We need active citizenship to show social solidarity to break out from the hopelessness, paralysis and apathy.

The disintegration of the ANC, the governing centre of South Africa’s post-apartheid dispensation, which has unleashed state failure, breakdown of rule of law and paralysing uncertainty, demands new kinds of active citizenship from privileged individuals, businesses, and civil groups, to provide the services, support, and stability to the vulnerable, the state cannot provide.

The turbulence South Africa is currently experiencing, unleashed by the breakdown of the ANC, will continue until a new governing centre is reconfigured from either part of the ANC or a new opposition party-based governing centre. This is likely to happen at the 2024 national elections, which is likely to usher in a new governing coalition – either the ANC or components of the ANC in alliance with smaller parties, or a governing coalition of opposition parties.

Sadly, this means that in the interim period, communities will have to increasingly rely on themselves with little hope of credible interventions by the state at national, provincial, or local level. The ANC government and leaders appear seemingly either unresponsive or lack the will or capacity to tackle these breakdowns, or just do not care because many reckon their voters will continue to vote for them, no matter what they do, so they do not feel under any pressure to act.

The rise in lawlessness, violence and breakdown in social order are now reaching terrifying proportions. Taxi, gang, and political violence; kidnappings of children, business leaders and public figures; and hijacking of businesses, houses and cars are every day.

The government continues to appoint deployees without the requisite skills, handover critical contracts to political connected companies without the capacity and tolerate corruption – which breaks down public services, collapse legitimate businesses and increases unemployment, which brings more cycles of state failure, breakdown of law and social disorder.

In the face of such overwhelming obstacles, ordinary South Africans, communities, businesses, and civil groups will need extraordinary doses of resilience, to overcome hopelessness, paralysis, and apathy, and to pro-actively shape their own destinies. Resilience is variously described as the ability to bounce back from setbacks, to overcome deep-seated challenges thrown into one’s path, and to be able to improvise in moments of terrifying crises, by coming up with innovative solutions.

The robustness of South Africa’s non-state sectors, such as business, civil society and media which have been competent, independent from government and staffed by capable talent, compared to the failure of the state, have boosted the overall resilience of the country. The reality is that the decline in South Africa would have been worse – if this possibility can even be imagined if it was not for the strength of the non-state sectors.

The challenge is how to empower individuals and communities to overcome hopelessness, paralysis, and apathy, and to pro-actively shape their own destinies. Covid-19 have seen active individual and corporate citizenship in action when ordinary citizens and businesses helped those more vulnerable with food, hygiene products and money.

Active citizenship will mean that ordinary citizens, with the means, time, and energy, will have to step in and contribute where they can – supporting vulnerable individuals, families, and communities, showing active citizenship.

South Africans of all colours with financial means should show greater social solidarity with disadvantaged individuals, families, and communities. Many citizens, companies and civil groups are already filling potholes, cleaning up public parks and cleaning streets. Such initiatives must continue – and extended to poorer areas also.

Skilled South Africans who have the time, could help in poorer communities. Retired professionals could teach in black schools, communities, from mathematics to rugby skills, or mentor a child in Soweto, Alexandria or Khayelitsha. For example, if they are medical doctors, they can volunteer their services, or if lawyers, can provide legal help to vulnerable individuals and communities.

Corporates should transform their empowerment and corporate social responsibility models away from giving shareholding to politically connected ANC or trade union leaders and companies, but to empower their current and former employees, local communities, and civil society organisations. Corporates should provide empowerment based on increasing the assets of disadvantaged communities as broadly as possible – building schools and houses, training the unemployed and employing larger number of young people. For example, corporates could use their training academies to train non-employees, particularly young people.

Corporates could give incentives to their employees to volunteer in poorer communities. Privileged individuals could pay for the education of the children of their domestic worker. They could give their domestic workers industrially useful practical skills – driving, first aid or vocational training. They could adopt a child’s education in the township or adopt a township family – through regularly helping.

Privileged schools can adopt/twin with poor township schools, with teachers from the well-resourced teaching at the poorer school, and richer parents volunteering at the poorer school. Former pupils of embattled township schools, residents of neglected townships and informal settlements who are now financially well-off must contribute to their old schools, townships, and informal settlements, whether mentoring, sponsoring poor children and families and giving access to their networks.

Vulnerable communities themselves will have to “find unknown inner strengths and resources” to cope with the uncertainty at the individual and community level. With policing failing, communities, without the means to hire private security, will have to set up community protection forums to keep their streets, townships, and areas safe. Most importantly, citizens, businesses and civil society should continue to hold public and elected officials accountable.

Citizens should volunteer on school boards, attend municipal ward committees, and participate in integrated development planning representative forums to hold elected councillors accountable. Citizens, business, and civil organisations must protest corruption, incompetence, and waste by public and elected officials.

Most importantly, the single most important tool to overnight reverse state collapse, breakdown of rule of law and corruption – and pull South Africa from the brink - is for voters not to vote for corrupt, dishonest, and incompetent leaders and parties, and not to vote based on ‘struggle’ credentials, colour, and ethnicity or on ideology.

More conscious citizens, business and civil society must get involved in voter education to raise the consciousness of those disgruntled with ANC elected and public officials, to not stay away from voting. But to vote for leaders and parties that are competent, honest, and caring, even it means voting for leaders and parties they do not share colour, past and their ideology with. Unless, the voters stop voting based on shared colour, struggle credentials and ideology, the parties, and leaders they vote for will remain unresponsive, and SA will continue on the path of state failure, breakdown of rule of law and chaos.

Gumede is the author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This is an edited extract from his talk at the recent Oliver & Adelaide Tambo dialogue on “Strengthening A Nation’s Resilience Dialogue”, Gordon Institute of Business (GIBS).