Mail & Guardian

Mafikeng Revisited: Thoughts on an active citizenry

09 Jan 2013 00:00 | Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Mpho Moshe Matheolane took to the streets of Mafikeng for active citizenry inspiration ... or the lack thereof. (Gallo)

Mpho Moshe Matheolane took to the streets of Mafikeng for active citizenry inspiration ... or the lack thereof. (Gallo)

There is nothing like bearing witness to inertia.

It is both tragically absurd and an unwarranted reminder of just how much human beings can be content with circumstances that defy logic. Of course the sort of inertia I have in mind is one heavily laced with the political – where the inhabitants of a society, very much like ours, seem blissfully unaware of their civil strength and duty to not only hold those that they put into power to account but more importantly to have a participatory interest in the socio-political discourse that directly and indirectly shapes their lives.  

In the Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus writes that “at any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face”. If I may be so bold as to reconfigure this noteworthy line, I’d say that in almost any local municipality in South Africa, the feeling of absurdity will certainly leave one feeling defeated and in despair.

The last time I wrote about Mafikeng, I could not but vent unbridled emotion at what appears to be the systematic sabotage of a once thriving town by the very political organisation that never lets us forget how much the freedom we now enjoy, thanks the humble efforts of its members.

Among the responses to that piece on Mafikeng was one that highlighted a significant point which could not be ignored.

The response touched on how very easy it is to blame politicians for things that go wrong, such as failures and incompetence in governance, the lack of service delivery and vision. All these are issues a concerned citizen may reasonably throw the way of a politician. However, concerned citizens should also be asking: “What is this concerned citizen doing in his or her own private capacity – other than complaining – to aid in the change that they wish to see in their society and community?”

While in Mafikeng over the festive break I ventured around its many potholed streets and urban areas simply as a means of reacquainting myself with the place I have always called home. What struck me the most was the many areas where rubbish was simply left at street corners or on open fields – smack in the middle of certain residential areas.

Now one can of course be quick to point out that the municipality is clearly not doing its job and that would be a correct assessment, to a certain extent.

The trouble is that some of the areas – where these rubbish heaps are now landmarks of sorts  –  have large containers that are clearly there for the collection of rubbish. But somehow the rubbish does not find its way into these containers.

I noticed a sign around the corner from Mmabatho High School that read something like: “Littering is an offence, offenders will be prosecuted,” but at the foot of the sign was an assortment of litter.

It is not a simple thing to get a dysfunctional municipality to work, as seems to be the case in Mafikeng, but I do believe that people in any given society are in many ways the very force that perpetuates the circumstances in which they live.

As the saying goes, you teach people how to treat you. The more you tolerate rubbish the more you receive it; that includes from politicians.

During last year’s ANC Mangaung conference President Jacob Zuma spoke about the era of the committed and selfless cadre, but I think – despite the irony of Zuma’s words – this country is far better off with a citizenry that realises its potential in a functioning society.

It does not require much to get involved in local organisations that seek to make a difference ... if there are none, start your very own with clear goals.

If, for example, the Mafikeng residential areas formed a community network that voiced how they would like to live, that would surely be a way of getting a message out to the local politicians, ward councillors and mayor. 

Societal inertia is not the result of inadequate governance alone but an inactive citizenry only good at only pointing out what is wrong instead of offering possible solutions or taking steps to make a difference.

View the original online publication here