/ 27 April 2023

Why we feel powerless and alone when global issues affect us directly

In a few days’ time
Democratic freedom is a prize humanity can only maintain by constantly standing in unity to protect it against all odds.

A common sentiment about complacency is that people who stand by and let evil prevail are as bad as the perpetrators of said evil. Yet it is common to observe a lack of unified active citizenship in times of crisis, when the problem appears too vast for an individual to feel empowered enough to do something about it. 

As we celebrate Freedom Day and commemorate 27 years since the first democratic election in South Africa, I am moved to revisit the role of active citizenship and urge that as individuals, families, organisations and communities, we should reignite the drive to participate as ordinary citizens in solving the problems that affect us, rather than assume that some problems are so large that only someone other than ourselves can solve them.

In an age where people have more access to information than ever before, it seems the average citizen is rather moved to watch in motionless horror as the travesties of the current times unfold before them than to respond with an action that contributes positively to the situation. What does it take, in an age where we have more information that we know what to do with, to revive the role of active citizenship in everyday South African culture?

The role of civil society as a barrier between South Africa’s most disadvantaged citizens and the problems facing the nation at its highest levels must be reclaimed.

We understand the plight of the overwhelmed individual who feels too powerless on their own to deal with the mounting pressures our socio-economic climate has created around them. Indeed over the last few years our residents have been subjected to conditions which physically and mentally isolated us as individuals for months at a time. 

The lockdown restrictions imposed during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic were found to have severely diminished cognitive abilities of elderly people who faced the most isolation in rural areas, according to a 2021 study by Wits University. Isolation, even in times of war, has always been used as means to break the human psyche in order to render them powerless and at the mercy of their captors. 

Financial stress, unemployment, crime and a slew of other social ills we have faced collectively can similarly make people feel alone in their battle, and feeling as though no help is coming for them from the government or their community can be further isolating. 

I plead with those who feel frozen in inaction not to be comfortable with that false sense of powerlessness. Our power as a nation lies in the things we agree are good for us, and which are our given rights as a democracy. 

We should not stand by and allow those freedoms to be taken away from us by the onslaught of corruption, mismanagement and economic downfall as a result. Rather we should be emboldened by our consensus that this cannot go on any longer to take action in our capacities towards better run communities with more collaborative relationships between government, civil society and industry. 

Freedom Day signifies the triumph over apartheid and represents the country’s adoption of a new constitution, which guarantees equal rights and freedoms to all South Africans, regardless of their race. It is a day to remember and honour the sacrifices made by those who fought against apartheid and to celebrate the diversity and unity of the South African people.

Though we may not be facing a battle as singular and semantically clear as apartheid, we face a multipronged crisis, which in its entirety amounts to the degradation of our democracy and the freedoms it upholds. 

By allowing corruption to fester and hinder service delivery such as in the devastating case of state utility Eskom, for example, participate in our lack of freedom to be governed by leaders that serve our needs as a people.  

By standing motionless as our justice system is eroded to the point of allowing criminals to make a mockery out of its correctional services, such as in the case of Thabo Bester we participate in our right to feel safe and protected by the systems we have voted to install for our benefit. 

Democratic societies the world over have demonstrated that it is possible for ordinary people to  overcome such vastly occuring problems like  corruption in government and economic downfall by ensuring the effective implementation of measures and policies that are tried and tested pillars of democracy.

1. Transparency and accountability in governance: Democratic governments need to be transparent in their decision-making processes and ensure that there is accountability for their actions. This can be achieved by strengthening the institutions that monitor and regulate the government’s activities, such as the judiciary, auditor general’s office and ombudsman.

2. Anti-corruption measures: Governments need to put in place effective measures to tackle corruption. These may include creating a strong legal framework against corrupt practices, establishing independent anti-corruption agencies, and encouraging civil society and the media to play an active role in monitoring and exposing corrupt practices.

3. Economic reforms: Democratic governments can overcome economic downfall by implementing economic reforms that help to strengthen their economies. This could include deregulation, liberalisation, and privatisation of certain industries, as well as investment in infrastructure and human capital.

4. Innovative policies: Governments need to be innovative in their policies and approaches to tackling economic challenges. This could include implementing policies that encourage technological innovation, promoting entrepreneurship and innovation, and providing incentives for businesses to invest and create jobs.

5. Citizen participation: Citizens play a crucial role in ensuring that governments remain accountable and transparent. Democratic societies should encourage citizens to participate in decision-making processes, monitor the government’s activities, and hold their elected leaders accountable. This can be achieved through the use of participatory mechanisms such as public hearings, town hall meetings, and online platforms.

Part of our duty as active citizens is to keep ourselves informed of the matters that affect us as well as the innovations and solutions that have been proven to work and which can be regarded in the crafting of decisions that elected governments should make about the country. 

We should not rely on biassed sources of information such as political movements as well as think tanks and experts backed by commercial interests rather than a genuine interest in improving the systems that benefit all members of society towards the common goal of freedom and democracy.

As a global citizen who idealises freedom and democracy in all our African nations, my heart goes out to those affected by the fighting in Sudan, including the 77 South African citizens awaiting evacuation in the conflict-torn region. 

Such crises as these which affect all African nations should remind us that democratic freedom is a prize humanity can only maintain by constantly standing in unity to protect it against all odds, because once we begin to identify ourselves as isolated individuals who seek only to act for their own good and not for that of others, we remain at risk of losing the freedoms that we achieved by uniting and acting on a common vision.

Marc Lubner is the group chief executive of Afrika Tikkun.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.