It is a difficult task to summarise the lively discussion on active citizenship held by the South Africa-Washington International Programme (SAWIP) class of 2012. It was lively, insightful and informative.
When exploring the issue of active citizenship it is important to consider the different viewpoints. To reflect on the SAWIP discussion, I have chosen to share with you some of my individual experiences as an active citizen. As someone who is involved in community projects, I had to consider the impact I create. Something that resonated with me during the SAWIP conversation was the ability of each speaker to touch on a very specific theme and that is how I have structured my thoughts.
Dr Leslie Van Rooi, Director of the van Zyl Slabbert Institute for Student Leadership at Stellenbosch University, highlighted the different realities of South Africans, He referred to the parallel realities of modern-day South African citizens. In his interpretation of an active citizen he noted that people need to know their country’s realities. He highlighted how there are different perspectives and as active citizens, we categorise our roles as individuals, within communities, in the country and in the world. We need to make sure that we have a firm understanding of our roles in South Africa, Africa, and the world.
SAWIP Board Chairperson, Vincent Williams spoke about his activism and how during the 1980s his active citizenship started with organising groups of students to mobilise against apartheid. There was the sharing of perspectives on how young people in 1980’s developed mechanisms to make small changes in their communities. He emphasised that being an active citizen means having a purpose. The focus should be on changing small things at a time and how this contributes to making a difference.
One of the key questions I would have liked to be answered to deepen my own understanding of active citizenship, was what type of institutions we are creating in South Africa? Is there a culture of institutionalising active citizenship in a negative way?An interesting turn in the conversation was when one of the SAWIP 2012 students remarked how young people are constantly being told about decisions that are made and sometimes they are made to feel powerless. This prompted a question from SAWIP alumni Jean Scrimjeour on what we are trying to build. What are we contributing as young people? Instead of answering these critical questions, more questions surfaced to ask participants why they want to be active citizens. The short answer from many was that they wanted to live in a better place.
At the end of this rich and interesting discussion I had to ask myself what does it mean to be an active citizen? The one thing that came through strongly was that being an active citizen was not about getting millions of people to do something but it was about influencing one person. Knowing this, the group discussion highlighted key elements of being an active citizen.
If you are to make a meaningful difference in your community you need to have perspective: perspective of your role in your community, your town, country and in the world.
As active citizens we need to be aware that we have a responsibility and that we need to take it seriously if we are going to make a meaningful difference.You need to have purpose and be able to ascertain why you want to make a difference. In addition to this you need to know who it is that you want to collaborate with. This means working with different groups of people to work towards a common vision. Once this vision is formed we need to understand the contribution we make, understanding the role we play and also being aware of the roles of the institutions in our society play. Being an active citizen means we have to be committed to what we decide to do.
Early in the evening the groups discussed being aware of not just your community, but also of your broader environment. Throughout the evening the one word that kept on making it into the conversation was community. The group was clear that this is an important element of being an active citizen.
The discussion was a difficult one to summarise and for me it was about reflecting on my own experiences of being involved and making a contribution. Thus, for me the most powerful element of being an active citizen is participation. Having the power to engage and be involved. That is the most powerful part of making a contribution.