With elections 2014 done-and-dusted, the question is where to from here? Is it a case of another 5 years of outsourcing the leadership of our nation to often distant, often corrupt, often inept politicians? Is there a role for us citizens to play in determining the next 20 years and beyond? If so what does that role entail?
Exercising our right to vote in elections is fundamental to democracy. But if democracy is to work well what needs to become equally as fundamental is what citizens do between elections. This has become something of a recurring theme of this column and the reason for that is that our relative immaturity as a democracy is being ensured by our between election behavior – not by our election behavior. Put another way, a barometer by which to measure democratic maturity would probably reveal that – voter apathy notwithstanding – we are mature beyond our years from a voting perspective but still fairly immature in terms of how we participate within our democracy between elections.
To blame for this is a lack of knowledge; a lack of education in the workings of democracy. Democracy – like any ideology or practice – needs to be studied, interrogated and internalized. Then it needs to become a lived reality. As South Africans we are lagging behind in terms of a holistic understanding of democracy and in terms of living a lifestyle of democracy.
Referring to a ‘lifestyle of democracy’ may sound like we are talking about a religion or at the very least a set of rules. This is not entirely accurate – although there are certainly elements of this within democracy. What the notion of a lifestyle of democracy should rather lead to – a far more transformative notion than rules and regulations – is that democracy is as much about the responsibilities of citizens as it is about our rights.
You see across the board; poor and rich, urban and rural, young and old we have studied, interrogated and internalized our rights; our right to vote; our right to strike; our right to freedom of speech amongst others. Talk to even the most basically educated man or woman on the street and they are generally able to give you some idea of issues such as fair and unfair dismissal, minimum wages, social grants and maternity leave. This is all good; I am not knocking it for one moment.
However, ask those same people – and indeed the educated – about their democratic responsibilities; reporting crime to the police; upholding the laws of the land; paying taxes and they suddenly become somewhat non-committal. Not only that but they are often unaware that these and other responsibilities are as important as their rights within the framework of democracy. In other words, we understand and defend our rights, but we cherry pick our responsibilities. This is the South African way and it must change.
This permeates into all facets of life in our country. Let me give you a personal for instance: A couple of years ago we sold our second car and I bought a scooter. I am ashamed to admit that for nearly two years I rode my scooter without a license. I justified this to myself on the basis that my license to drive a car would suffice (though I knew full well that this was not the case) and worse still that I would probably never be stopped and asked for my license. Now, bear in mind that I spend a great deal of time pondering, writing and speaking about issues such as democracy, crime and active citizenry. I know how damaging such actions are and yet I found myself guilty of saying what so many of us say: “I’ll never be caught.” We will have matured as a democracy when we begin to say: “Even though I may never be caught – I will still do the right thing.”
Another example was a recent exchange on the Facebook page of a bushveld holiday nature reserve that we visit. A person was enquiring about renting a house within the reserve on a permanent basis. The administrator of the page informed the person that they could do this but they must first apply to the municipality for permanent residency. From the response of the would-be resident you would have sworn she had been instructed to douse herself in benzene and set herself alight. She was spitting mad and ended her tirade with a sentence familiar to most of us South Africans: “Everyone else does it – so why can’t I?” This kind of childlike logic – also so prevalent here in our country – is another major hindrance to the maturing of our democracy.
I recently did my scooter license. It was a bore but it is done. I did it because I know full well that how we live our lives between elections contributes to the future of our democracy – good or bad – and because I – we – have no right to critique the maturity of our democracy if we are actively contributing to its immaturity.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysen: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.