Why citizens go missing in action
DEMOCRACY is a wonderful thing - is it not?
Well, an overwhelming majority of citizens who cherish its guaran-teed freedoms and active participatory values would give an unequivocal "yes" to this question.
Democracy's most vocal advocates have been known to argue for the system's revolutionary aspect, even going as far as to place democracy above communism as the world's foremost revolutionary idea.
But don't make the mistake of letting a communist hear you utter such a "provocative" statement, unless you want to be declared a class enemy.
Anyway, the democratic system is actually far more revolutionary than anything else out there.
Think about it: what system allows citizens to take an active role in choosing their preferred leaders and later remove those leaders, through the vote if they have failed to carry out their responsibilities as entrusted to them by the electorate?
Which system allows citizens to air a plethora of contrasting viewpoints and anti-government criticisms without running the risk of being shipped off to political school as often happens in China?
These are the freedoms citizens living in democratic societies have at their disposal, including the estimated 50 million South Africans.
Why then are we such a passive citizenry?
This is one of the issues the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) grapples with in its report From Subject to Citizen: Let the People Govern.
The report - a submission in response to the National Planning Commission's National Development Plan document - tackles South Africans' timidness in the face of an ever-increasingly dominant state that promises to single-handedly offer solutions to all its citizens' needs, and wants.
Casac's Dr Mamphela Ramphele - though not absolving government's tendency to render South Africans spectators in their own development - laments citizens' passiveness, arguing that this behaviour is a consequence of our failure to make the transition from apartheid to democracy.
"The one actor who has been missing in action is the citizen. When we moved from apartheid to democracy, we seem to have underestimated the transition from being subjects to active participants in a democracy," Ramphela says.
Borrowing from Ramphela's comment, it would seem South Africans have a master-servant relationship with their government.
This is borne out by the daily interactions - often one way - between the government and the people.
Recently the government sent out numerous messages in which it makes known its intent to forge ahead with the much-despised e-tolls.
While there was a public outcry that resulted in unity among various sectors of the population over the issue, it's the government's insistence on moving ahead with the project that lends credibility to the servant-master relationship.
In the minds of government mandarins, once the master has issued an instruction it is the servant's duty to obey such an instruction.
But this begs the question: why would a democratically elected government, which owes its existence to the electorate, treat the same electorate with such disdain?
Well, it could be argued that the disdain emanates from the prime position the government finds itself in as the self-declared solely capable provider of South Africans' remedies.
This is an extremely powerful position to find oneself in.
It is this government, as millions are so often reminded, that has provided free electricity, water and houses to those who would otherwise have been left in the lurch.
So it would not be far off to imagine a government official asking: "We've given you free houses, water and electricity. What more do you want?"
Perhaps as a sign of how beaten-down we are, it would also not be far off the markto imagine many citizens resigning themselves to a life as subjects to an all-conquering government by asking with their arms folded: "Re tla re eng?" (What can we say?)
To combat this, Casac's report proposes a mindset shift.
"There is therefore a need to shift mindsets of South Africans from those of subjects to citizens. While the Constitution promotes the values of accountability and transparency, it is not possible for the government to be properly accountable to disengaged and disempowered citizens," the report states.
What the report does not propose is how citizens who have come to expect everything delivered to them on a silver platter by the government, should wean themselves off such patronage.
After all, what alternatives are out there in the world for millions of people who don't possess even the basic skills to compete in an economy as advanced as ours.
The government, it would seem, is their only hope and the government knows this all too well. - firstname.lastname@example.org