OPINION | Melene Rossouw: No longer ballot-fodder, South Africans are masters of their own destiny

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Active citzenry is needed to get the country functioning properly, argues the author. (iStock)
Active citzenry is needed to get the country functioning properly, argues the author. (iStock)

One thing to take away from the 2021 municipal elections is that South Africans hold their own destiny in their hands and will have to drive the country's post-crises future through active citizenry, writes Melene Rossouw.


If there is one lesson that the local government election leaves us with it is that ordinary South Africans hold our destiny in our hands more than ever before.

Much has been said about voter turnout in this election which at 45% is the lowest we have experienced in our Constitutional democracy. Some say this is the death of active democratic participation, as most of the electorate has said quite clearly that it is terribly bored with what's on offer at the buffet of party politics.

Political science scholars who reflect on these matters might suggest South Africa has entered a "post-democracy" period where, as Robin Rodd writes reflecting on Uruguay's experience in the journal Democratic Theory,  citizenship "is reduced to spectatorship, arguments are reduced to advertising".

Active citizenry needed 

But we doubt this is the case in South Africa and don't yet see cause for breast-beating and consternation. Why? Because there is an opportunity to reframe what might be seen as a depressing milestone into the fresh start of an era in which citizens drive an agenda of reconstruction in which we are more the actors in our own story than ballot-fodder to be manipulated and acted upon.

It is now clear that active citizenship will have to drive our post-crises (Covid-19, the economy, Eskom blackouts and political fracturing) future more significantly than political parties' existing agendas. That view may seem contradictory, and indeed, it is if we believe that voting is primary in the definition of an active citizenry.

But we would argue that voting alone is not the only definition of active citizenship and thus viewed the road ahead, while not without its potholes, provides some signposts of a hopeful future. Granted, the evidence is not bountiful, but it is not absent either.

Firstly, we have seen in this election how active citizenship in places like Cederburg in the Western Cape and Lekwa in Mpumalanga has evolved into presenting new options to citizens in those communities with a story which voters there have found to be authentic. 

That's a cause for hope, not because we endorse any political entity, but because such engagement and activism is a solid sign that active citizenship is not dead. 

READ | Opinion: Government is about order and chaos

Indeed, the phenomenon of successful independents in these polls who campaigned on tickets of active citizenry throws down a challenge to established political parties who can no longer rely on their brand alone and who will now have to emulate the practical examples of their independent competitors if they wish to win votes. These candidates are effectively raising the bar.

As much as voting is an important demonstration of an active citizenry, it is also not the only way to be engaged and consequential in our society, and we must never forget that. 

Consider for a moment the lessons that have emerged from our most recent past: the spontaneous network of 58,000 people who joined Rebuild SA after the riots and who helped scores of devastated businesses get back on their feet. 

Volunteers

Or think of the thousands of volunteers across South Africa's neighbourhoods, whether they be suburbs or towns, who have selflessly helped feed and support the poor and destitute through this horrible pandemic.

Or the businesses, both big and small, who held on to as many jobs as they could as we weathered the worst of the economic storm. 

All of that is building a platform of hope that the road ahead is not unnavigable. These examples, we would argue, all stand as evidence that our society can "thicken" as much as fragment.

In case any of this sounds like a self-serving wishful pipedream, let's have a look at some further, more empirical evidence. 

A couple of months before the pandemic began, Statistics South Africa released a Governance, Public Safety and Justice Survey Report which, among many other things, tried to measure social cohesion by "estimating the proportion of the population who have benefited and those who performed acts of kindness to people from a different race".

Acts of kindness

One in four people over the age of 16 said they had been beneficiaries of an act of kindness from someone else of a different race, and nearly one in three said they had been dispensers of an act of kindness.

Those are amazing statistics, both for what they say at face value and for the fact that we live in a society that sees that it is worthwhile to measure such a thing.

READ | Opinion: Lizette Rabe: Humankind - be both human and kind

So, while this election might underline a more significant erosion in trust in our established political institutions, this does not leave us helpless and inept. On the contrary, it should inspire us to seize the moment, to cement the ties that bind us through our acts of kindness towards each other and through our sense of a common destiny.

We need to stop waiting for the state and other institutions to act and for South Africans to come together to start building a future which provides jobs, security, health and hope. The phenomenon that has been this election, might well be the catalyst of that opportunity.

Melene Rossouw is lead volunteer for the Siyabuya Movement. 

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