Posts Tagged ‘citizenship’

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

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.

“I hope the guys in red win”


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.

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.




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