“One of the mistakes we have committed over the years is creating a passive society, people who cannot do anything for themselves, people who sit and wait for service delivery.” – Gwede Mantashe
Post-apartheid we are left constantly reflecting from one election cycle to another. While the issue of service delivery remains constantly echoed year after year, it calls for deeper understanding. It not only brews frustration of citizens but also exhumes some gaps and failures within the governing and public body. Service delivery improvement remains key to ensuring a better life for all South Africans. This however has come to be an old tale constantly shared. With corruption on the rise, the government’s ability to deliver has been met with high levels of discontent, and passivity. Corruption at this level not only includes bribery or embezzlement but it also includes the misuse of public resources, failure in following procedural steps in tender procurement or the use of personal connections to obtain favours amongst others. All these acts are criminal offenses that have come to erode any public trust or confidence in the governing body. This essentially results in a discorded community that is passive to state realities. With a crippled economy and public trust, voter participation has also been affected.
The problem of service delivery
As a common phrase in South Africa, ‘service delivery’ is used to describe the distribution of resources to citizens for example, housing, water, sanitation etc. As a highly unequal state, South Africa inherited a mixed bag of inequalities post-apartheid. Faced with so many social injustices, the state has drawn efforts in addressing some of these social injustices through schemes such as the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) meant to alleviate poverty and improve the quality of life for the previously disadvantaged persons. Although ambitious and channelled toward the good of the state, these schemes amongst others have been met with challenges with the major challenge being corruption. Corruption has eroded society and robbed it of any hope towards a better future. There is high unemployment with many blaming or looking to the government for solutions, But governments do not simply create jobs, they require the right environment to do so. The right environment however is one constantly sought for. The right environment requires social cohesion and participation. Ideally it requires collaborative effort in order to function. Some studies show that a lack of community engagement affects the responsiveness of some South African municipalities thereby resulting in poor service delivery. Although true it is important to also understand the reasons behind fragmented societies. Such societies also show the existence of passive citizens.
The Passive Citizen
Political passivity within democratic nations is deeply concerning to many and a growing issue. A democratic state often follows the beliefs of its citizens exercising their pursuits of rights of expression, voter participation and expression amongst others. Failure to exercise these, challenges the ideology of democracy within enlightened societies. What then is the use of democracy if change and social justice does not come with it? Most of what we know about democratic societies is the citizenry exercise of their voters right, but what then becomes of citizen rights, their potential better living conditions, equality, and equity within corruption-stricken states? What does the citizen then do in crisis branded society? Politically speaking crises are often used by governments as opportunities to be seized for the transformation of social reality. While poor service delivery remains an ongoing crisis since apartheid it has birthed an additional unfolding crisis of passive citizens.
The framing of a passive citizen comes from voter and electoral research. Election statistics have been tagged as evidence to support the idea around passive citizens. Over the years the voter turnout in South Africa has reduced significantly with a recorded 73.48% voter turnout in 2014 compared to a 66.05% turnout in 2019. Statistics show a constant decline in the voter turnout after the first election cycle post-apartheid. The failure to vote however cannot be attributed as a direct measurement of passivity. Sometimes the reasons of not voting may involve realities beyond the intended voter’s control. These may include sickness, little to no sense of belonging within society and other conflicting interests. While this may be the case there is still a portion of non-voters who simply do not exercise their right due to lack of motivation.
Studies have often branded these as passive voters, citizens who lack any interest in voting, let alone make trips to the polls. In South Africa the worrisome demographic involves the youth pool. The youth are considered as persons within the age range between 18-35. With over 13 million unregistered youth, it remains a challenging reality. What is the reason for this passivity and apathy? When we seek to understand the reasons behind the apathetic actions that of the youth it is worth noting the conditions that lead to this behaviour and attitude.
The personal relationship to the state as well as the ongoing reality within the state all fuel an individual’s decision to either participate in the voting exercise or abstain. To begin with it is essential to understand what citizenship entails. Citizenship can be understood as a practice, a practice that involves playing an active role within society. While this may be true there are still two extremes which include the active citizenship and passive citizenship. The former refers to the active citizens who participate in community activities for the betterment of society. This is the nature of citizens often sought for in societies. The latter however is apathetic and often observes a sense of social detachment, alienation, and negative attitudes such as frustration, powerlessness etc. While frustration may sometimes be used as a means of mobilizing the political energies of people who may have suffered social inequality it can also do the opposite.
Rights versus reality
Extreme frustration has the ability to immobilize rather than stimulate voter activity. In mobilizing the ‘people’, populists use the crisis to dramatize economic insecurity and inequality. By tapping into these economic anxieties and inferiority complexes they often point the problem to globalization. Populism often combines anti-scientific, anti-elite attitudes with ‘natives’ or citizens of the same race. Arguments often oppose empirical knowledge knowers and research. Often one of the reasons of poor service delivery is purported to immigration trends. This not only fuels the rage of locals towards foreign nationals, but it also deflects the blame from the government. This may incite tension amongst locals and foreign nationals and erode any sense of humanity. Although an increased population strains state resources, corruption still plays a major role in destabilizing the needed environment for social growth. Additionally, it aids the mistrust, discontent, and apathy of citizens.
The crisis of non-voters unveils underlying issues. In the political world, Colin Hay defines crisis as a category of practice that is mobilized to do particular political work. It unveils underlying issues and invites social inquiry. Through crisis we begin to learn and understand the visible and invisible issues that require attention. Although a citizen’s right, the exercising of voter rights has been met with mixed reactions within the public. While regarded as a liberal dream, there are still masses who see it pointless due to the political and socioeconomic climate there are in. This frustration often comes with the realisation of continued democratic downfall. The echoed reality of corruption embeds itself in the minds of the people to the extent they find no hope for any change. Though true to some extent resilience still needs to be exercised. Crisis brings with it opportunities which could either see political leaders taking advantage of the situation for their own merit or offer public opportunities for growth through active participative and collaborative efforts. There is need to stand up against adversity and begin scripting a potential future characterised by change. That time is now.