The role and place of citizens in South Africa: a governance perspective

Thumbnail Image
Nyathi, Mandla Comfort
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
University of the Free State
This research’s focus is on examining the role and place of South African citizens from a governance perspective. The role and place of citizens can be defined as “a process wherein the common amateurs of a community exercise power over decisions related to the general affairs of a community” (Bekker, 1998). The Constitution of South Africa (1996) recognises a citizen as a legal member of the nation who is either born or neutralised in South Africa. Being a citizen means that there are both obligations and responsibilities that must be met, to maintain representative democracy and the proper role of government. An obligation is an action that a citizen is required to fulfil by law, while a responsibility is an action a citizen should take for the sake of the good common. Obligations of citizens include the paying of taxes, obeying laws, defending the nation, registering for elections and responsibilities include voting, attending civic meetings, and petitioning the government (Christopher, 2018:117). The role and place of citizens from a governance perspective is further solidified by the Bill of Rights. Chapter 2 of the Constitution (1996) provides that citizenry have the right to life, equality, freedom of association, political rights, citizenship, housing and parenthood for children. Citizens have the right to vote in which they play a role by participating in the democratic process of choosing people who will represent their interests in the Parliament (Green, 2008:55). According to Santoro and Kumar (2018:199), by choosing their own leaders, citizens are making use of their space in a constitutional democracy to make a positive contribution towards good governance. Green (2008:170) reiterates that voting is a constitutional and democratic process in which the citizens can hold the government to account. Since Members of Parliament (MPs) are chosen representatives, they must be accountable to the South African people and must act in the interest of the public. Christopher (2018:31) indicates that parties are elected based on what they stand for and MPs should be able to explain what they have been doing to execute their duties. Since the mandates of political parties are temporary, MPs are accountable in the sense that they may not be re-elected if they did not represent the public well or they do not deliver on the promises they made. It is vital to keep politicians accountable, as it is key to democracy and good governance. Accountability will compel the state to concentrate on outcomes and to assess and report on performance (Bekker, 1998:64). According to Galvin (2017:78), accountability has three elements, namely financial accountability, political accountability, and administrative accountability. The Institute for Democracy in South Africa considers accountability as a vital part of safeguarding public rights. In Shah’s point of view (2005:35) there are two types of accountability: vertical accountability (to citizens directly through the ballot box) and horizontal accountability (to public institutions of accountability). The institutions of horizontal accountability include the legislature, the judiciary, electoral commissions, auditing agencies, anticorruption bodies, ombudsmen, human rights commissions, and central banks. Institutions of horizontal and vertical accountability are fundamentally interconnected in that horizontal accountability is not likely to exist in the absence of vertical accountability: governments will bind themselves with institutions of horizontal accountability only when they will be punished by citizens for failing to do so. Civil society is believed to be another influential factor in the development of institutions of horizontal accountability (Shah, 2005). If competent governments are thought to be able to control the economy, then economic voting seems eminently sensible and the impact of economic conditions on election outcomes seems to provide powerful evidence of democratic accountability. In addition, if citizens are systematically biased in their perceptions of economic conditions, retrospective accountability will suffer (Achen & Bartels, 2016:147). Contrary to the roles and responsibilities, as mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, citizens demonstrate acts of irresponsibility, which in turn affect governance in general. During the 2021 local government elections, many South Africans voted, not with an X on a ballot paper, but by staying away (Independent Electoral Commission, 2021). This was a decision that was likely to leave a patchwork of coalition-run municipalities across the country that could have a detrimental effect on the future of South Africa’s democracy (Matias, 2016:56).
Dissertation (M.A. (Governance and Political Transformation))--University of the Free State, 2023