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What is an active citizen? Reflections from South Africa

Blog | September 6, 2016 | Kekeletso Molebatsi

Since the launch of the Yowzit Connect-Tech project in 2014, I find myself constantly talking about creating an active citizenry. The ‘active citizenry’ term comes up up in daily conversations about the programme’s goals and future.

But it occurred to me recently, that I didn’t have a precise definition of what I meant with this term: What does is it really mean to be an active citizen? Is there a broadly accepted definition that spans across communities? How do you recognize an active citizen from other, less active ones?


Yowzit Connect-Tech is a civic technology project in South Africa, which helps to insert citizen voice into the public decision making process.

As an online rating platform for public services, the project is focused on how to make the voices of ordinary people not only heard, but actually listened to by those in power – but, if we’re honest, it’s not about the platform, it’s about the people who use it and how active they are.

Active citizenry: the gold standard and its main characteristics

Working on this project, I have the privilege of partnering with ground breaking civil society organisations who are working tirelessly to improve their communities. I’ve been impressed with the passion and dedication these groups bring to their work. Their willingness to listen to and substantively engage with local communities around everyday issues that impact their lives is unparalleled.

It’s fair to say that these groups represent the gold standard of active citizenry. But, not everyone can dedicate the same level of energy to improving their community. Nor should they. Outside of the rarefied few who can devote the majority of their time and energy to this end, what qualifies a person as an active citizen?

The answer, it turns out, is not as complicated as one would think.

What I found from the people I talked to was that active citizens have one major thing in common - they take responsibility for educating themselves.

Active citizens know how their local government works. They have figured out how to get things done and effectively deploy their knowledge to good use. Active citizens are the first to provide feedback when things do not work well. They are full of suggestions for how to make things better.

So, if the goal is to enable more people to be active citizens - how do we do this?

Easy access to useful information is a critical first step. The second step is a simple process for getting things done, so that people don’t get information and find they are unable to do anything about it. These two components could significantly lower the engagement barrier.

In South Africa, information is often difficult to find. People are less likely to engage if they have to invest a lot of time searching for the basic information they need. Similarly, they are less likely to participate if the process for doing do is onerous or cumbersome.

So, for now, our lessons are this:

  • People need quick and easy access to information
  • They need a simple, straightforward process for using that info
  • Finally, and most importantly, we need to work on making sure more people see community participation as a natural and useful part of their lives, rather than a waste of time – and this will only come by demonstrating results

About the author

Kekeletso Molebatsi is Yowzit’s CONNECT-TECH Project Manager
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