Photo credit: www.civicvoices.org

Beyond the Vote: Active for the Common Cause

06 May of 2014

By: Zamandlovu Ndlovu @JoziGoddess

“Young people are using social digital spaces to come together on issues. Part of the problem is the perception that organising – especially through social media– causes social destabilisation. Meanwhile, there is a noticeable decline in the culture of community-based clubs and organisations which are unrelated to politics or service-delivery issues.”

On the 9th of August 1956, somewhere between 10 and 20 000 women of all races and classes, from all over South Africa, descend on Pretoria and marched on the Union Buildings to protest against Pass Laws.  Four years later, on the 21st of March 1960, members of the Pan Africanist Congress meet at a field in Sharpeville, and proceed to march peacefully towards the police station. They are met by a heavy police contingent. By sunset, 69 people are dead, 180 are wounded. Sixteen years later, on the 16th of June 1976, police fire live ammunition and teargas at school children who are protesting against the Bantu Education Act of 1953 and a new decree that they be taught in Afrikaans. Two lose their lives on that day; scores more lose their lives in the coming days.

The 1980s are marked by increased civil unrest and township violence that culminates in then-President of South Africa P.W. Botha declaring a State of Emergency in 36 magisterial districts. In this period 2,436 people are detained under the Internal Security Act. Another State of Emergency, this time covering the whole country, is declared on the 12th of June 1986; four days shy of the ten-year commemoration of the students’ uprising. By the end of this decade, the apartheid government is finally ready to negotiate.

This is but a snapshot of four decades of a resistance movement by South Africans from various backgrounds who came together to fight for one thing: freedom.

At a press conference in February, Gauteng acting police commissioner Lieutenant General Lesetja Mothiba was quoted as saying that there had been 122 violent protest marches in Gauteng alone over the preceding three months. Much of the violence is seen as enduring legacy of a culture of violent protest from the 1980s.

Albeit violent, these protests are a demonstration that citizens have remained involved in changing their poor circumstance.

Youth Lab, an organisation I am director of, has run and joined a number of engagements aimed at providing young South Africans with a non-partisan space to discuss manifestos with political parties in the lead up to the 7th of May elections. Despite efforts to centre discussions on issues facing unaligned youth, attendees of these political debates have been members of political parties there to support and defend their political principals. Soon, discussions descend into hostile debating matches rather than robust debates on political ideas. In many ways election season demonstrates that post-1994 South Africa has divided citizens strongly across political lines.

This is not to say that South Africa does not have a well-organised civil society. The Review of the State of Civil Society Organisations in South Africa describes the role of civil societies as “… as partners through which service delivery can occur. Civil society organisations present an opportunity for government to develop effective and efficient partnerships. These organisations are often able to identify the needs of communities more readily and they have further reach than state organs.”

Nevertheless, with formal civil society organisations being so heavily reliant on government and the private sector for funding, social media outrage and civil disobedience have become the arsenals of choice for voicing citizen dissatisfaction.

Young people are using social digital spaces to come together on issues. Part of the problem is the perception that organising – especially through social media– causes social destabilisation. Meanwhile, there is a noticeable decline in the culture of community-based clubs and organisations which are unrelated to politics or service-delivery issues.

The civil society space is highly fragmented, and is failing to find a cause that cuts across the clutter of political alliance, economic class, race, gender, and other fragments of identity.

The inability of civil society to speak with one voice on key issues weakens civil society, making it more difficult for citizens to be a pivotal pillar of this democracy. A strong and active citizenry reminds the State of its mandate to deliver on the equality and individual liberty as promised to each citizen through the nation’s social contract. The tension also ensures that governments become weary of being perceived as being on the side of business. Citizens in South Africa are already active, the next step is to find a new common cause, and live the example set by South Africans in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Photo credit: www.time.com

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