Citizens must actively keep government on its toes

IN MANY African countries citizens often allow their leaders, representatives and governments to get away with the proverbial murder.

If a leader, representative or government fails, many citizens just shrug their shoulders and say: what do you expect from these palookas?

More often than not citizens go to the elections in their droves, vote and then sit back and wait on their leaders, governments and representatives to "deliver" on the promises made.

Similarly, governments, leaders and representatives often also wrongly argue, well, "you people" have voted for us, you have given us the mandate, now sit back and relax and let us get into the business of governing.

In April South Africa's politics were energised when millions turned up to vote in the national elections. Yet, unless those who got out to vote stay active in politics by at least holding the government they elected accountable on a daily basis, it will turn into a wasted vote.

Delivery is a two-way process: it's a contract between the government and citizens, with both having to deliver on the bargain they struck.

Most people solely blame the government for a lack of delivery. This is only half-right. If government service delivery is to speed up citizens must also do their bit.

The responsibility of citizens is not only to monitor whether service delivery has improved, but to actively hold government to account when it slows down

An important tool at the disposal of citizens is to protest - not to just wait five years for the next elections.

Just shrugging ones shoulders in the face of a lack of delivery is not active citizenship. At local government level citizens must protest, either in the form of marches, strikes or petitions, if their municipalities are not delivering. Protesting must happen within the bounds of the law.

The elected person must also act on what you, the citizen, have identified as priorities, not what they, closeted in government, have identified as priorities. Democracy is weak unless there are active and involved citizens.

The instinct of all governments is to "demobilise" citizens, after elections: they want citizens to sit back, and wait patiently for the government to deliver. In fact, the reason for the poor performance of government the last decade was that citizens were demobilised en masse. Many expected that electing a democratic government alone would be enough guarantee for it to deliver. By the same token citizens must also complain, protest and make a stink about badservices in the private sector, whether banks, shops or garages.

Active citizenship also means getting involved in the neighbourhood, workplace, society, and voluntary organisations such as stokvels and sports clubs, either by attending parents' meetings at schools or to attending municipal meetings when one can.

Unless citizens get involved in similar ways as during the struggle of the 1980s when they kept the apartheid government on its toes by marching complacency will set in and service delivery will slow down. Then people went on strikes and often marched to express their unhappiness, government.

l Gumede is the author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC.