This year, we celebrate 20 years as a democracy. On the 7th of May 2014, South African citizens of a voting age are expected to exercise their democratic right to vote in the national elections. A right bestowed upon each and every citizen of our country, but a right bestowed to some for the last 20 years only.
The right to vote has come to all of us as a result of the great sacrifice of those who went before us, and believed with conviction, in a better South Africa for all.
In his famous speech from the docks which he gave on 20th April 1964 before being imprisoned, Nelson Mandela said the following: “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
We hope never again to encounter a period in our country’s future, whereby people would need to lay down their lives in order to achieve the ideals that serve the common good for all. But for this to never happen, each and every one of us has a role to play as citizens within a democracy and as people who aspire towards upholding that which serves the common good for all.
Citizenship is described as “the status of a person recognised under the custom or law of a state that bestows on that person (called a citizen) the rights and the duties of citizenship. That includes the right to vote, work and live in the country and the right to return to the country, besides other rights.”
While we often spend time debating the rights bestowed upon this person (called a citizen) there is a tendency to neglect the duties associated with citizenship which each and every citizen has an obligation to fulfil. Peter Parker’s (aka Spiderman) Uncle Ben , with apologies to Voltaire, is often quoted as saying that, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
The point is that there is no freedom without an associated responsibility that goes with it.
A number of our Candidate Fellows and Allan Gray Fellows will be voting for the first time in their lives. A responsibility which I hope each and every one of them will treat with the gravitas it deserves.
Earlier this year, Candidate Fellows were invited to explore the realms of active citizenship with Foundation Trustee, Professor Njabulo Ndebele and what this meant for each of them. During this time, Candidate Fellow Richard Bryce got the idea that he needed to do something to engage his fellow students on campus in order for them to make an informed decision when going to vote on the 7th of May. Richard set about seeing that his idea moved into action and rallied the necessary permissions, individuals and societies on campus in order to get as many students involved. This has culminated in a number of workshops and dialogue sessions taking place across the campus at the University of Cape Town on 26 and 27 April. And this, in essence, is what active citizenship is all about – understanding that as an individual, you have a role to play in your country and that you have the responsibility to ensure that you bring others along with you.
While we have come far, our journey has much further to go, and we will not make the required progress without active citizens. It was Theodore Roosevelt who said that “The first requisite of a good citizen in this republic of ours is that they shall be able and willing to pull his own weight.” Let us all be willing to pull our weight in whichever way we can. Thank You Richard, Allan Gray Fellows and all other young South Africans who already feel a responsibility towards pulling their weight.
As you contemplate going to exercise your voting right on 7 May, I also urge you to think about your responsibility as a citizen, beyond just voting, as I leave you with these profound words from our Constitution.
“We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to —
Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.
May God protect our people.”
How else can we be genuinely active citizens? Let me know your suggestions below. See you at the polls on the 7th of May!