The notion of active citizenship is highly contested. A recently organised SAWIP colloquium on the subject spoke to this and brought attention to the many diverse opinions that can be brought to bear on such a topic. Those involved in the panel included the British High Commissioner HE Nicola Brewer, the City Press Editor Ferial Haffagee, Love Life CEO Grace Mathlape, the Deputy Director of the Brenthurst Foundation Terence McNamee, Katie Katopodis from Prime Media, Phyliss Byars-Ameguide from the GIBS Centre for Leadership & Dialogue and SAWIP Alumni. Peter Mann, CE of Meropa Communications, chaired the colloquium and encouraged the panel members to use their personal and professional experience to explore what active citizenship means to South Africa today.

Inevitably conflicting views over the nature and scope of active citizenship were noted. Whilst some participants argued that South Africa’s citizenry were active; others wondered whether the preferred term was reactive. The impetus for an active citizenry is founded in the understanding that the developmental challenges facing South Africa cannot be addressed by the government alone. Along with the right to an equal and democratic society comes the responsibility to aid in addressing the challenges of our past. It was made clear by the panellists that the expectation of active citizenship is for all citizens to do what they can, when they can in both their personal and professional capacity.

Although the South African people were recognised as being generous, concern was raised over levels of apathy and an apparent preference for grand acts of activism as opposed to that of a smaller scale. The panel highlighted the need to rebuke this preference in recognition of the limited scope for participation by the most marginalised of communities. Related to this is a prominent thought raised throughout the evening; the need to reconsider the engagement model currently in place.

Given that the scope of active citizenship is greater than just political; it was the view of the evening that further means for engagement need to be established. In particular the poor, women and rural communities need to be empowered to be in a position to effect change. Perhaps the most disconcerting realisation for the evening was the recognised class, race, gender and age distinctions in relation to active citizenship. Eighteen years in to democracy it would have been hope that these distinctions might not have been so prominent. Yet throughout the evening the most marginalised were often referred to as the poor, black predominantly young males and females, whilst the most apathetic were often referred to as the wealthy and white.

In understanding that this most certainly is not always the case; it is concerning that active citizenship appears to not yet have reached an all-encompassing state. Whilst the issues will not always relate to all citizens, it is hoped that the national vision for which South Africa stands will be able to transcend these distinctions. If effective active citizenship is to be fully established, then the citizenry need to serve the joint interests of all as opposed to their own. Perhaps this is an unachievable vision but unless it is set as the target; the limitations of distinct groupings of an active citizenry will remain.

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