Category: Media & Citizenship

The complexities of the conversation

Water protest

Tuesday 26 August, 4:35pm, outside Grahamstown Pick ‘n Pay.

“Having water issues hey?” I ask a colleague as she struggles to load two freshly bought 5 litre water bottles into her hatchback. “I’m actually sorted for drinking water, this is to flush my toilet, they have made the bottles cheaper saving me R12,” she says slamming shut the boot of her car.

R24 spent for the convenience of flushing a toilet.

It’s been a rough week for the people of Grahamstown, with most households having to solve the surprising amount of challenges posed by almost a week without running water.

This is not the first time the town has gone without water for more than a “couple of days,” with some gaining local fame for their take on public protest. A student dressed in full ‘shower-ready’ regalia joining a march in 2013.

These developments come as no surprise to most local Grahamstownians who have, “seen a steady decline of service delivery and municipal competence over the past 20 years,” says long-time local businessman, parent and concerned citizen Roy Gowar.

“We have seen things go downhill, yet very few people have been willing to take a stand. We need to reestablish the old Grahamstown ratepayers association, I know of many people who would be interested,” he says lightly banging a pen on his desk, driving his points home.

People are serious, people are angry; sparking discussion and picking up momentum as the week’s hardship progressed to near breaking point with the situation going “Grahamstown-viral”. With various Facebook groups aimed at supplying Grahamstownians with near-live coverage of the repairs to the vital water-service infrastructure gaining popularity.

One of these pages, Grahamstown municipal services outage reporting is run by a private individual acting in their own capacity as concerned and connected citizen.

By the quality and speed of the updates I imagine a figure glued to the screen of her computer, ear to the phone with a direct line to the various private contracted teams of engineers that have been labelled the hero’s of the town.

One post by Lynne Giese Grant responding to the news that a new pump had finally been installed saying, “I can’t wait!! Thank you, Amatola and MBB. You guys should be the ones getting the Freedom of the City!”

MobiSAM and PSAM, two organisations aimed at developing the public’s right to information working with the aim of increasing – and in some ways forcing – increased government accountability also proved extremely valuable in terms of their institutional presence and input in during the week.

The MobiSAM Facebook page, having direct ties to infrastructure repair teams across the town, updated the public and developed a collective following of close to 1500 people as the week progressed.

This sparked a unique symbiosis between maintenance contractors, a public service accountability monitoring organisation and the wider Facebook public, with all parties sharing information on a near hourly basis. Something never before seen in the history of the town’s various service delivery related crises.

These spaces, facilitated on a platform that I would risk to suggest, has become almost ubiquitous with middle-class social interaction, served as a meeting place for mostly concerned similarly minded individuals to share information.

But mostly to vent; the comment streams dominated by a collection of tired clichés relating to “bad governance”, and how “crap” the municipality is.

This brings me back to the comment made behind the safety of a large oak desk, “We have seen things go downhill, yet very few people have been willing to take a stand,” made by my landlord, who pays the Makana Municipality close to R20 000 per month in property rates.

For a town beleaguered by a history of close to weekly protest action of some sort, resulting in smatterings of “quick-fix solutions” to endemic issues of maladministration in the extreme, its inhabitants have, up until a day ago, failed to bring about effective political action.

The question arises; who has to speak, to whom, to be heard? And more importantly how does one speak?

The change from benign spaces offering updates on regular municipal service outages, to spaces sparking flashes of debate (although much of it tainted with fear, anger and at times racism) and collective participation seem to signal the political potential of these platforms as spaces where the private and the public converge around issues impacting not only the individual planted in front of his screen, but his neighbour too.

What is clear from much what was posted online – the activity having died down now that water supply has been reestablished to those who frequent facebook – is a clear belief and feeling of victimhood.

Bickford (1997) suggests that victimhood cannot always automatically be regarded as an assertion of powerlessness or innocence stating that victimhood is at times an assertion of the exercise of unjust power.

It is this notion of asserting the exercise of unjust power – by taking-on as citizen, the position of victimhood – and the complexities involved in articulating and understanding these issues that came to mind as I eagerly “reposted” MobiSAM updates to the social media pages of all the local Grahamstown media. This and the fact that many who are able to act from a position of relative power in relation to local government are willing to spend R24 each time we flush the toilet.

As the week progressed and discussions as well as tempers flared the situation reached its inevitable climax with the online organisation of a collective march on City Hall organised by PSAM and the ever engaged UPM.

What is most interesting here is that the event, a page on Facebook, was created by an individual, and relied on “shares and likes” to make its rounds on Facebook.

Calling for a section 139, placing the current local municipal council under administration the event scheduled for 12noon on Wednesday 27 August, yielded the desired results. Leading to the demands made by the parties involved being met unconditionally on Thursday 28 August.

Here Heller’s (2009) notion of “effective citizenship” understood as all citizens’ rights and capacity to exercise free will, therefore freedom to shape their citizenship status and act on it, seems to align with Chipkin’s (2008:13) notion of democratic practices which involve the rituals and traditions which we as South Africans use when engaging as active citizens.

The above example then seeks to illustrate how these norms and practices associated with effective citizenship are changing in the face of Information Communication Technologies (ICT’s), but more importantly how citizenship and it’s practices are legitimated.

Therefore returning to my initial question: who has to speak, to whom and how, to effect change?

For reasons of explanation I use the notion of a “conversation” to illustrate interaction between various spheres or groups of political life in Grahamstown.

Connecting the dots I conclude:

Under normal, water running in the taps, conditions two largely separate conversations take place with regard to civic life in Grahamstown. The stress of a waterless week however resulted in what I attempt to map below.

Middle-class people with access to ICT’s and platforms like Facebook to speak to each other, which allows for the emergence of individual pages such as the Grahamstown municipal services outage reporting page.

NGO’s like MobiSAM speak to private contractors who supply radically transparent information on their progress to MobiSAM which distributes is back to private middle-class individuals fuelling their rants and debates.

While this is happening, organisations like the UPM is speaking to those who do not necessarily have access to ICT’s, supplemented by local traditional media such as radio and print, fuelling debate and conversation between individuals.

The water crisis heightens and tensions rise, so an individual on Facebook calls for collective action in the form of a protest march on City Hall.

The middle-class conversation picks-up this call and circulates it on various platforms, including traditional media who in many ways manage to broadcast the message further than the comfortable confines that come with regular internet access.

The conversation grows to include (the ability to imagine needs to be stressed here as it too is a result of the preceding events) what is imagined as a possible Makana Unity League made up of various civic organisations around town which aims to bridge the gap between the two spheres of conversation, the one middle-class the other working class (I use these terms as denominators of access to ICT’s mainly).
This collective conversation agrees to meet physically, bound by space and time and come together in the form of a protest march speaking as a single collective voice – for a hour or two happy to concede difference and unite – insisting on immediate action.

It is this convergence of conversation and the ways in which the conversations take shape, falling into the traditions and practices of South African “democratic practices” (Chipkin 2008:13) that enables the individual as well as the group, albeit for only a week, to bring about effective citizenship and to the relief of all a free-flushing toilet.

By: Hancu Louw


Bickford, S.1997 “Anti-Anti-Identity Politics: Feminism, Democracy and the complexities of Citizenship. Hypatia, Vol. 12, No. 4, Citizenship in Feminism: Identity, Action and Locale.
Bickford, S. “Emotion Talk and Political Judgement” in The Journal of Politics, Vol. 73, No. 4. October 2011, Pp. 1025 -1037.
Chipkin, I. Democracy’s People. 2008.
Heller, P. 2009. “Democratic Deepening in India and South Africa” in Journal of Asian and African Studies SAGE Publications.

Ways of belonging

By Meli Ncube

The notion of citizenship is sometimes taken for granted and in South Africa, 20 years into democracy, it is far from being a settled concept.

Adam Habib, vice-chancellor anhabib-adamd principal of the University of Witwatersrand, joined Laurence Piper, deputy dean of research in the Faculty of Economic Management sciences at the University of the Western Cape, and Joy Owen, senior lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Rhodes University, in trying to define what citizenship or citizenry is in today’s South Africa.

Habib suggests that South Africa and its ‘citizens’ should first actually understand what the principle and notion of citizenship is. His understanding of citizenship according to him is that, “it is that which a citizen must be prepared to accord others with the polity of what they themselves want.”

In theory this is a very good and frank definition of citizenship but in practice this is a quite difficult as evidenced by the inequality still plaguing South Africa. This, Habib also acknowledges and says that it indeed is difficult principle to practice that kind of citizenship because of the high levels of inequality where you find people demanding for themselves for others what they themselves would not accept when it comes to matters of labour standards and the minimum wage.

“CEO’s earn about R17 million per annum for themselves but when workers demand a paltry R12 500 they refuse,” says Habib, referring to the Marikana and platinum mine strikes which are becoming a permanent fixture every calendar year.

Piper, on the other hand, says that “citizenship is about rights and not just the legal status.”

The idea that South Africa, at 20 years, is now a mature democracy absolutely makes sense, but only if one looks at the power structures of those running the government. In this he means that if you look at the bottom ‘from the perspective of citizens’, the picture of democratic citizenship is ‘fragmented.’laurence-piper

Piper alluded this to the fact that many South Africans still have to pay access to some of the most basic services which are the rights of citizens as enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights- such as water, shelter, and education.

Consequently, explains Piper, inequality results because those who can afford the best of those basic citizen rights get the most and the best of them whilst those who can’t joy-owenwell do not get the adequate services they require as citizens.

Owen true to her anthropological nature makes her point like any good anthropologist would, by telling a story. “I will tell you a short story because I want you to think critically about the power you wield within the South African polity,” she says.
Her story is that when she used the term ‘makwerekwere’ to refer to white American citizens (exchange students), her class said it was wrong to do that especially to white people. Worryingly her class told her it was acceptable to refer to Africans (black) by that term because they did not belong in South Africa. Therefore for Owen, citizenship is about the politics of belonging as such to be a citizen you have to belong somewhere and somehow.

From such discussions it can be concluded that much and more extensive research still needs to be done on the notion of citizenship and what it means to citizens of any given country.

Please visit the Think!Fest blog to access the full recorded discussion:


Presuming Privilege


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.


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.


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.


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.









When citizenship is no longer valued!

By Meli Ncube

As cliche as this might sound, I will say it anyway, it is true that you never appreciate what you have until its gone.

Fortunately for me, what I have is not really gone and maybe I couldn’t care more or less at this juncture if it was to go.

You see, I have always taken ‘citizenship’ for granted because for me it was one of those things which are ‘just there’. Well, I crossed the mighty Limpopo one day to South Africa to study, and for the first time in my life my ‘citizenship’ was questioned.

Seven years later I have become so used to the sight of Zimbabwean citizens advocating to assume South African citizenship. I also must admit that this thought has also crossed my mind once or twice; actually more than enough times already.

By the time this article is published Zimbabwe would have celebrated 34 years of independence from Britain, its former coloniser. I should point out that I write as a citizen of Zimbabwe in South Africa and I am one of the many who is unhappy. Dahlgren (2005) suggests that citizenship is a formal status, with rights and obligations. I on the other hand am not so sure where I stand with the obligations part, but I definitely know where I stand when it comes to the rights part.

Maybe I should qualify my claim to be a Zimbabwean citizen first before I go any further. The Constitution of Zimbabwe declares that-

persons are Zimbabwean citizens by birth, descent, or registration. All Zimbabwean citizens are equally entitled to the rights, privileges, and benefits of citizenship and are equally subject to the duties and obligations of citizenship.

As far as I can tell I was born in Zimbabwe, my birth certificate says so and so do my parents, additionally my lineage is also of Zimbabwean descent, and besides, all my ‘documentation’ suggests that I am a Zimbabwean citizen. Furthermore the next part of the Constitution which has since qualified me as a citizen of Zimbabwe by the way also declares that-

all Zimbabwean citizens are entitled to the following rights and benefits, in addition to any others granted to them by law:

  • to the protection of the State wherever they may be;
  • to passports and other travel documents;
  • and to birth certificates and other identity documents issued by the State.

Zimbabwean citizens have the following duties, in addition to any others imposed upon them by law:

  • to be loyal to Zimbabwe;
  • to observe this Constitution and to respect its ideals and institutions;
  • to respect the national flag and the national anthem;
  • and to the best of their ability, to defend Zimbabwe and its sovereignty.

That being said, I can unequivocally declare that I am indeed a Zimbabwean citizen, but, well there is always a but! So my but comes in that of late it really hasn’t been a very attractive proposition to be a Zimbabwean citizen.

Of course by ‘of late’ it is thinly veiled euphemism, what I really mean is that for the past two decades it really hasn’t been attractive at all.

Chipkin (2010) contends that; a citizen is a moral-ethical figure, and that citizenship implies a certain norm of social conduct, and, therefore, implies a certain ‘good’ way of living together in community.

I fully agree with this observation, but I wonder how morally ethical one can be and remain if they are faced with harsh economic difficulties.

Dahlgren (2005) on the other hand suggests that citizenship has a subjective side: people must be able to see themselves as members and potential participants with efficacy in social and political entities; this must be a part of people’s multidimensional identities. Furthermore citizenship is central to the issues of social belonging and social participation.

Dahl (1989) seems to have captured the whole notion of citizenship when prescribing that; citizens should possess the political resources they would require to participate in political life pretty much as equals, which in all fairness is hardly ever the case especially in the African context. Most importantly among these resources, which are important to citizenship, are the ‘knowledge information and cognitive skills’ resources. 

Let me go back to my earlier assertion that of late being a Zimbabwean citizen hasn’t been the most attractive of options out there.

I will begin with the land reform programme which rocked Zimbabwe a decade or so ago, and perhaps is it there were all the trouble started.

In 2002 the government of Zimbabwe decided to give land to its citizens after appropriating it from its ‘other’ citizens. These ‘other’ citizens were predominantly white farmers and of British descent. The argument advanced by the government of Zimbabwe was that it was righting past wrongs of colonial era. For most of these farmers the notion of citizenship must have been puzzling to them since they had been born and bred in Zimbabwe through generations and generations of their ancestors.

The way the government conducted its land appropriation programme is perhaps aptly captured by Mahmood Mamdani (2011) in his book titled; ‘From Citizen to Refugee: Uganda Asians Come to Britain’. In the book Mamdani describes how in the process of their eviction and their properties appropriated the infamous Idi Amin suggested that the “Asians came to Uganda to build the railway. The railway is finished. They must leave now…” (Mamdani, 2011:13).

In all probability these were the same sentiments expressed in Zimbabwe as they always are even to this day. Admittedly, such punitive measures, taken by African governments sometimes, raise questions about citizenship statuses to those affected by such actions.

I am not qualified to speak on the subject of homosexuality; whether it is right or wrong, but I understand that certain rights of homosexuals are being impinged upon as citizens by the failure or refusal of the government of Zimbabwe to recognise them.

They are in certain aspects not the same as other citizens and therefore should not enjoy the liberties all others enjoy because in the words of Pres. Mugabe ‘they are worse than animals’. In all fairness, homosexuality is not the real problem afflicting Zimbabwe.

The real problem is political, more precisely Mugabe and ZANU Pf’s stranglehold on power. Vitriol rants against homosexuals have become the governments  ace card, and the president really has nothing left to talk about except save for homosexuality and or sanctions.

Thus these infamous sanctions have also become a useful scapegoat for anything that goes wrong in Zimbabwe, from a sorry economy, rampant corruption, to just about anything, even the weather!

On the subject of the economy, therein lies the issue, most professionals have since left the country and sought refuge elsewhere. What is worrying for me however is that the new and younger generation of future professionals like myself would just about do anything to keep away from Zimbabwe, hence the notions of valueless citizenship come to the fore.

There is a passionate desire not to return home to an ailing economy, which makes it virtually impossible for the enjoyment of ‘rights, privileges and, benefits’ of citizenship one is entitled to. I  and a host of others aren’t really guaranteed employment, proper health care and other social amenities which the Constitution promises me as a citizen.

Surprisingly, for some strange reason however, other countries like South Africa, Britain, and the USA seem to be a far much better prospect even though it can be argued that they also fail their citizens to some extents.

Just recently on the occasion of the opening of the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) in Bulawayo this is what the president said;

“I was looking at the road from the airport to here. It was as if it was made in 1924 when I was born. If you put a bit of cement on it to level it, decorate it and put a bit of shoulders to the roads as other do, I’m sure they will look just fine” (Mugabe speech, ZITF: 2014)

The only response I could think of when I read that speech comes from one of my hooded heroes Batman, who aptly puts it by saying that ‘you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain’.

Events occurring in the last two decades are a far cry from what Mugabe said in 1980 when the country attained its independence from colonial rule. On 17 April 1980, President Robert Mugabe addressed a euphoric crowd in the soon-to-be-independent Zimbabwe and had this to say to all and sundry;

“democracy is never mob rule … our independence must thus not be construed as an instrument vesting individuals or groups with the right to harass and intimidate others … our new nation requires … a new spirit that must unite and not divide.”

How times have changed since that passionate plea as Mugabe now has the ignominious distinction of being the only African head of state to preside over an average decline in both economic output and life expectancy. Since 1980, Zimbabwe’s poverty rate has skyrocketed; and the nation has shifted from being a global exporter of food to one in which one in four citizens needs food assistance.

Depressingly a recent survey by the country’s largest trade union found that 75 major companies have since shut down since January 2014 alone, putting around 9 000 breadwinners out of work.

To add to the problems, a once lauded education system is crumbling; with teachers routinely threatening strike action or leaving the work force altogether due to meagre salaries.

In this article I have probably ignored the basic precepts that make good citizenry but then again it is citizenship that is no longer valued!





Chipkin, I. (2010). ‘Functional’ and ‘Dysfunctional’ Communities: the Making of National Citizens. Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser). Journal of Southern African Studies, Volume 29 (1). Carfax Publishing

Dahl, R. (1989). Democracy and its Critics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dahlgren, P. (2005). The Internet, Public Spheres, and Political Communication: Dispersion and Deliberation. Lund University. Sweden

Mamdani, M. (2011). From Citizen to Refugee: Uganda Asians come to Britain. Pambazuka Press. Cape Town, Nairobi, Dakar, and Oxford.




Dr Badat on inedequate citizenship

This is an edited extract of the speech made by Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Dr Saleem Badat at the universities 2014 graduation ceremonies.


During the past eight years I have used my graduation addresses to share ideas on critical issues related to our society. This evening, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of our democracy, I wish to reflect on the progress that we have made with respect to citizenship in post-1994 South Africa.

1994 was a revolutionary breakthrough. From being a racially exclusive authoritarian society in which millions were downtrodden subjects, we became a democracy in which for the first time almost all inhabitants became citizens.

Critical here was a commendable Constitution, including a Bill of Rights, which held out the promise of an extensive range of human, social and economic rights that did not exist for all or at all prior to 1994.

As a society, as social groups and as individuals we, and especially black South Africans, made a significant transition and advance in 1994 from subject-hood and being ‘subjects’ in the land of our birth to becoming ‘citizens’.

During the past 20 years there have been significant economic and social gains and achievements. At the same time, there continue to be many challenges, and key institutions of our democracy have come under strain as a result of too many in power seeking to use the state as their private piggy bank.

Still, a relatively independent judiciary, free media, autonomous universities and the like remain intact. Witness in this regard the magnificent performance of the Public Protector’s office under Thuli Madonsela.

However, a number of contemporary realities, compromise the ideal of full and substantive citizenship rights for all that the Constitution promises. Indeed, they condemn large numbers of people to conditions that are associated with subjecthood and being subjects.

Read more ...

Login Form