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No trust and no confidence, but can we get excited about local government?

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Municipal elections are taking place in South Africa in 2016. It may seem a bit premature to start talking about voting again with the memories of the 2014 national elections still fresh in our memories, but the battle for services at local government demands that we start to focus our attention on these elections as early as possible. The biggest problem with local elections is the lack of trust and confidence by citizens in local structures. Political parties should be seriously considering the questions of ‘why would citizens vote in municipal elections if they don’t have confidence in local government, and what can we do to change this?’

A recent survey conducted by the Institute of Race Relations shows that while 54% of those surveyed believed the national government performed well in 2012 (not a particularly encouraging percentage of the population), that only 49% had confidence in local government. That means that more than half of South Africans do not have confidence in the structures which govern their lives at local level. The research conducted by the Mellon Media & Citizenship project showed similar trends in their survey of young people in the country. The baseline study on young people measured their trust in local, provincial and national government and found that local government fared the worst of the three. “Only 34.4% of respondents say they trust local government a great deal or quite a lot. Close to four out of ten (38.3%) of respondents say they trust provincial government quite a lot or a great deal, and 40.9% of respondents say they trust national government a great deal or quite a lot” (pg58).

If citizens do not have confidence in and do not trust local government, what can they do during election time to change that? There is probably a long list of things that citizens can do, but I came up with a short list of three which are directly related to voting: 1. Vote for a party other than the one that is currently holding the municipality. The problems with this are numerous, including the fact that often people cannot relate to any party other than the ANC, they may be wary of voting for a party that has no history of success in their area, and they may be wary of voting for another party that may prove even less efficient than that which currently holds the municipality (better the devil you know…). 2. Abstain from voting at all. Again, this comes with its own caveat including the fact that this does mean you have one less avenue for engagement at the formal level. 3. Vote for the same party that is currently running your municipality, but this time plan to hold the party and the officials accountable once they are in power. This may seem the most logical and rational, but politics is hardly either of these things, and often citizens feel like they have very few avenues for engaging with public officials once they are in office – so how can they hold them accountable? It seems our formal political structures leave very few options for citizens to feel truly empowered, and provide very few avenues for changing levels of trust and confidence.

If citizens do not have confidence in and do not trust local government, then levels of voting during municipal elections are predicted to remain low. I would suggest this will be particularly true for young people. During the national elections, only 31% of people between 18 and 19 years of age registered to vote. In a paper called ‘South African Youth: Politically apathetic?’, Potgieter and Lutz suggest three strategies for getting young people more interested in voting as a formal means of political engagement. 1. Dealing with ‘bread and butter’ constraints. “Effectively addressing socio-economic constraints (such as unemployment and health care) might impact on youth participation in formal political activities” (pg24). The problem with this is that these are the very constraints that citizens are struggling to get, a lack of these is the very reason that confidence in government is so low, so what are the chances that this will change? So called ‘bread and butter’ constraints are what is hampering local government, these are not going to change unless citizens have an avenue for holding officials accountable and voting is not an option because they do not have confidence in those who will be voted into power. 2. Addressing voter education. I agree that many citizens are politically illiterate, but this has less to do with ‘voter education’ and more to do with an understanding of citizenship and the rights and responsibilities of citizens (of which voting is just one). 3. Mandatory voting. I would strongly disagree with this suggestion because citizens already feel immense pressure to vote for historical, cultural and social reasons, most of which have little to do with democratic values and active citizenship. Making voting mandatory will simply lessen the value of the vote rather than make it a more powerful means to engage politically which is what we need.

 

I think the problem is not with the citizens, particularly young citizens. The problem starts with a lack of understanding of what citizenship means to young people, not how young people don’t fit into our conceptualization of citizenship. If young people have a lack of trust in government and are not voting as a result, the solution is not to try entice them to vote, but to give them alternative means through which they can engage politically, alternative avenues for making them active citizens, and more engaged ways of holding public officials to account. I remember the IEC introduced an advert for the 2014 elections which saw a number of cool celebrities telling us why they are voting and why we, as cool citizens of a cool country, should vote too. What I’d like to see for the local government elections is an advert where ordinary young people tell us why they don’t see voting as an option, but can help us understand other ways of engaging with local government, ways that they use to better their communities, ways which hold officials accountable, and can help other citizens gain confidence in local government.

Youth, community service, and giving back

Just over one month ago, on the 21st February, on a very windy, cold and rainy day, young people from across Grahamstown walked for awareness. The President’s Award Walkathon, which took place at the Rhodes University athletics track was an opportunity for young people who are involved in the Award programme to raise awareness about what they are doing and what the importance of community service is to them and to the broader community.

Those that attended are passionate about their impact on their communities, but more so are passionate about being recipients of life lessons as they go about their community service. These young people have a strong sense of their own civic identities, these are young people who matter in their communities, and who will make a difference to a great many people. At the same time, they are humble about their efforts, and reflexive about their own growth and their own development.

Despite a small turnout, the efforts of those who organised the event were strongly supported by those who did attend and they can be proud of the young people who are giving back. These are young people who braved the weather to tell others about their experiences, their small efforts, and the huge rewards that they get from being part of something bigger than themselves. While we often lament the apathy of young people, we should be looking beyond the numbers and looking at the quality of those who are civic minded, community aware, and who will become leaders in their communities in the future. Quality of spirit rather than quantity of participants defines their efforts.

Hear what they had to say

“I hope the guys in red win”

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I began watching the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Thursday evening, 12th February, with my 7 year old son and my husband. It was a family affair, an opportunity to show a young person some of the privileges of living in a constitutional democracy and hopefully spark some interest in him as a young, budding citizen.

It was a lesson, I feel like I taught him many things in a very short space of time, but perhaps not in the way I had imagined. I did teach him about democracy, but instead of using the constitution as an example of a formal structure of democracy being upheld by members of Parliament, I used it as an example of a formal structure being blithely dismissed by powerful elites. Instead of using the media coverage as an example of freedom of expression, I used the blocking of the cellphone signals as an example of the infringement of freedom of expression rights and the dismissal of the rights of citizens to information being supplied by the media. Granted, we did start our coverage on SABC (perhaps not the smartest move considering the way the state, excuse me, public broadcaster has aligned so clearly with the state), but quickly moved to ENCA who didn’t rely just on the parliamentary feed to show us what was happening inside and out of the parliamentary chambers. There was another lesson – Parliament should be open to the public and broadcast to the public. When this broadcasting was done by the parliamentary feed, it was biased and obviously in the interests of the ruling party. The lessons on freedom of expression continued as I pointed out that audio to the parliamentary feed was cut when it was clear that MPs and people in the gallery were chanting ‘bring back the signal’ in protest against the jamming of the cellphone signal.

I also used this as an opportunity to teach him about some of the rights we have as citizens of this country. We have the right to know what happens in Parliament – because it is separate from government; we have the right to speak out when we feel our rights are not being upheld by those in power, and sometimes that truth spoken to power works. It worked last night in the way that the signal was quickly returned. It does not always work. The EFF had the right to speak out about their issues – we should all be angry about the lack of accountability from the President and acknowledgement of wrong doing – but in this case their disruption of Parliament did not work. Another lesson – Parliament should be a sacred space where policemen/women (who work for the government) should not be allowed to enter. They did and so another lesson – if you are angry you can walk away from the debate to prove a point. The DA walked out of Parliament in protest against the use of force by police in the chamber – it didn’t have the same flair as the disruption by the EFF and perhaps they were trying too hard to be like their EFF counterparts, but regardless, they had the right to walk away in protest.

At one stage during the initial moments of coverage and the disruption by the EFF, my son said that he hoped the guys in red ‘won’ (I suppose at some points it did look a bit like a boxing match). And so to my last and perhaps most important lesson for this young citizen in the making – MPs are not in Parliament to win or lose, they are there to represent their people. The only losers from the shambles that was SONA last night, were the citizens who voted in the hope that they would be adequately, fairly and thoughtfully represented in Parliament. We lost big time! Parliament should be an opportunity for MPs to make gains for their constituents – it was not. SONA should be an opportunity for the President to show the citizens of the country how we’ve been winning in the previous year, what gains and what losses we’ve made, and how there are going to be more gains in the year to come – it was not. Lesson over.

Presuming Privilege

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The Mellon project on Media and Citizenship recently hosted a workshop on citizenship for young people who are part of a local youth development group. These are young people that we often call the ‘born frees’, who were born after the end of apartheid, and born into the privilege of ‘democracy’. And this is the problem I have with this term and with the presumptions we make about young people in South Africa today. I myself have often referred to them as born frees, as a generation unburdened by apartheid, and as a generation that should be grateful for the privileges it has in living in a democratic South Africa. After engaging with this particular group of young people, I realize that there are two serious issues with these presumptions.

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The first is that we presume the born frees understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens and therefore are equipped to take advantage of their position in the new South Africa. The second is that, having moved away from an apartheid government through democratic processes, we presume that young people are free to enjoy their lives in a democratic society. I think at this stage in South Africa both are unfortunately not necessarily true and we presume too much about these young people.

Let me address the first presumption through the example of the workshop that we hosted. We arrived on a cold and rainy Grahamstown morning at the Joza Youth Hub, situated in Joza township on the outskirts of Grahamstown. A group of approximately 18 young people from local high schools were gathered for their annual holiday programme run by the Upstart project, of which they are all members. The aim of the workshop was to engage the young people in discussions about citizenship, democracy, voting, being and feeling heard, and the issues that affect their daily lives. As the Mellon project we devised a workshop where we would facilitate these discussions through role-playing. The participants were divided into groups and asked to form their own ‘political party’ which would then have to create a manifesto, communicate their manifesto to the other participants, and finally all participants would vote for the party they thought would best be able to make positive changes in their communities. It seemed simple enough. The problem, and what made me think very carefully about the presumptions I make, is that many of these young people had no idea about the formal processes inherent in a democracy such as voting, the responsibilities of citizens and the responsibilities of governments. Their manifesto’s generally mirrored the rhetoric we hear from political parties before big elections – false promises and grand gestures.

The basic problem is that without any formal and critical citizenship or civic education in the school system, young people today are ignorant about the processes which allow them to be ‘free’. They don’t understand the voting process, they don’t understand their rights as citizens and that voting is just one way of getting heard by politicians. These are not people who are free to choose how they are governed because they don’t know the alternatives and therefore can only choose what they know – the status quo. Even if issues such as active citizenship and democratic processes are being taught in schools, they are not effective in engendering a deeper understanding of the process which allows young people to question and debate what is going on around them.

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The second problem has less to do with young people and more to do with society in general, and the problem is that too often we think that once a country is declared a democracy that democracy has been achieved. It hasn’t. We are not born citizens, it is a status that we learn, that we act upon, that we are given by the state, and that we demand through our rights and responsibilities in the communities we occupy. But I think that our identity as citizens is never fully achieved because the circumstances of our daily lives are in constant flux. There is always something that tips the balance against a perfect equilibrium of rights and responsibility, and the balance between citizen and democracy. Chipkin argues that “people precedes democracy” and without an understanding of what it means to be a citizen, there cannot be a clear understanding of what our democracy should look like. Although this is a broader problem, young people today are expected to take up their position as citizens, born frees who understand what it means to live in a democracy and therefore behave in a democratic way. But how can they? They are not adequately taught what it means to be a citizen and strive for democracy, and as Chipkin argues “the question of democracy has to be posed in the contexts of colonialism, class polarization, racial domination, ethnic fragmentation and patriarchal violence”. It certainly cannot be divorced from our past regardless of how young you are and how lucky you are to be born after 1994.

The issues that many of these young people’s parents grappled with when they were the same age are the same issues voiced by these young people during the workshop. The issues they deal with on a daily basis include the lack of clean, accessible running water; proper sanitation; adequate schooling and bursaries to pursue tertiary education; adequate and safe housing; lack of employment; and electricity in their homes. How can we presume these born frees are privileged to now live in a democracy, when they live through the same issues that their parents lived through during apartheid. And even worse, how can we presume they are now privileged enough to be able to change their situations when they in fact feel helpless, powerless, and certainly not ‘free’ enough to do something/anything about their problems.

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Many of these young people’s citizenship is at risk. Not because they are not South African citizens, but because they don’t have the agency to take up their citizenship in a way that ensures a continued challenge to the status quo. Their citizenship is at risk because they do not know what it means to be a citizen or the associated rights and responsibilities. As a result of this, they are not born frees.

 

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Young South African’s – Actively Disengaged

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“I have never voted … I don’t see the use of voting.”

These are the words of one young South African that we spoke to in 2012. This young person was not the only one however, in the group of more than 80 people that we spoke to, who had a negative perception of voting. Many of these ‘born frees’ were disillusioned with the process, regarded it as a waste of their time because they thought that putting their X on the page would have very little effect. They saw the process as simply not being able to change either the way politics played out nationally in South Africa, or more importantly in changing the situations which made their daily lives difficult. Things like unemployment, drugs, crime, teenage pregnancy – these are the issues many young people regarded as important to them, and they felt that their vote would make little, if any, difference to those same problems.

 “Ja, personally I’ve lost trust in politicians, and the last time I voted was 2006”

For a long time I thought this made these young people disconnected from society, and disengaged from what was going on around them nationally and locally. The rhetoric which I read about young people distancing themselves from politics and therefore not being ‘active’ citizens was reinforced by the way our focus group participants spoke about politics. Traditional forms of politics such as voting, attending political meetings and signing petitions have for too long been regarded as the standard by which we judge others and their value as citizens. If you don’t vote, are you really an active and engaged citizen? If you aren’t a member of a political party, can you really say you have an interest in politics? But why should young people find resonance in the rhetoric of political speak which too often does not speak directly to them or listen to them enough? We need to recognise instead that there is a clear distinction between being disengaged and disinterested in formal or traditional politics, and being detached from wider democratic and political processes which may be represented by alternative political and civic activities. Wring et al note rather astutely when speaking about young people, that “politics’ as represented by parties and politicians simply does not connect with their everyday lives in any meaningful way” (Wring, Henn & Weinstein 1999: 203).

Too often we base our judgements of citizenship on the traditional, without thinking about what appeals to young people. Based on traditional norms or standards of what an active citizen is most of the young people we spoke to would be immediately judged as passive and disinterested – as bad citizens. Hart argues, that rather than judge people based on these norms and standards, we should use a ‘cultural citizenship’ approach which “seeks to uncover and challenge the cultural and institutional practises that support fixed notions or normative assumptions of ‘ideal’ citizenship, which serve to exclude citizens who may differ from these norms, for example, in terms of identity, culture or beliefs” (2009: 645).

Drawing on survey data gathered from almost 1000 young people (http://www.ru.ac.za/media/rhodesuniversity/digitalpublications/Sanpad%20Report%202013/#/0), we see a picture of a young person who is involved in their community, and who takes an interest in what is going on around them. Although they may not participate in traditional forms of political activity, they have connections with social life and are indeed ‘active’ citizens in their own way. Their lived experiences show us that while they disregard formal politics, they show a strong regard for the people around them and for improving their lives. We need to judge young people based on the practices which take place in their daily lives such as helping a neighbour or being involved in a social group and not disregard them based on our ‘adult’ and traditional measures.

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With so much emphasis being placed on 2014 as the year that South Africa’s democracy turns 20, and the year of the next national elections, young people should be proud of their citizenship and should be looked up to as good citizens, whether they vote or not.  Unlike many people who regard themselves as good citizens for standing in a queue every four years to vote, these young people live active citizenship because they practice small acts in their daily lives. During the National Schools Festival in 2012, the Mellon Media and Citizenship project conducted World Café sessions with young people who attended and we asked them their thoughts on being citizens in South Africa. Below are some of the messages that the young people wrote to each other. It is clear that these are not the disengaged and disconnected youth that many citizenship scholars write about. Over and above the optimism about South Africa’s future (perhaps as a result of naivety), there was an overwhelming sense of action and taking charge of their situations, being involve in their communities, and of getting things done – these were active, engaged and ‘good’ citizens.

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