Citizens must take action to reclaim their dignity from government's dysfunction

Harrismith Water Heroes get their hands dirty fixing infrastructure in the Free State town.
Harrismith Water Heroes get their hands dirty fixing infrastructure in the Free State town.

Maluti-A-Phofung municipality in the Free State and Makana municipality in the Eastern Cape are two of the many dysfunctional municipalities across the country.

They are notable for something else though. They provide a good example of the workings of civic agency. SA needs it no less now than it did during the days of the Struggle against apartheid.

Residents have collaborated in collective action to address the crisis of lack of services.

Farmers and residents of Harrismith, a town in Maluti-A-Phofung, clubbed together to restore water supply to their community.

The Unemployed People's Movement, a local activist movement, together with a residents' association together took the Makana municipality to court for failing to provide services.

Civic agency in simple terms is the capacity of individuals and groups to cooperate to take actions in resolving common problems.

Civic agency requires citizens not to view politics narrowly as just voting in elections and institutionalised forms of engagement in entities such as legislatures and the executive.

Citizens need to realise they are agents and can exercise their political agency - the capacity to make decisions and take actions to influence the trajectory of their society.

Democracy is more than just party politics. It goes beyond the debates in parliament and the policy-making processes in cabinet.

It is about citizenship and the opportunities presented for ordinary people to have a say in the nature and development of their country.

The people should set priorities and determine what goes onto the agenda to determine their destiny.

Political movements, parties and causes should be rooted in communities - where ordinary people are and where the issues affect and concern them most.

Unfortunately, with time and with the taste of incumbency, political parties rather than being the conduit for the exercise of civic agency become the graves in which civic agency is buried.

Given that it has become abundantly clear that political parties and politicians do not have much by way of solutions to the problems of society, it has become urgent to educate for and promote civic agency.

Last month, as the ANC celebrated its birthday, party leaders made a big fuss about the deplorable living conditions that residents of Kimberley are subjected to.

It was as if these leaders have been living on another planet for the past two decades. This is clear evidence of people who have lost touch with the lived experiences of the people who vote them into power.

It is sad that a political party like the ANC, that boasts a long history of being rooted in communities, has lost touch and is losing touch with communities who have supported it during the Struggle all the way into a democratic South Africa.

But this disconnect is also a reflection of the dearth of civic agency in SA society.

There is a need for citizens to get more actively involved.

More than just the institutional checks and balances in place to prevent and penalise the abuse of power, civic agency is indispensable to ensure that the collective good trumps narrow political agendas that undermine the wellbeing of communities. Civic agency requires individuals and community-based organisations to form alliances and establish common areas of interest. By determining priorities that align with their wellbeing they can then decide on actions and forms of activism to ensure the common good is upheld.

Civic agency should channel popular discontent and grievances through collective actions - beyond protest - that result in resolutions and leave the government and leading political parties with no choice but to respond.

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