An active citizen is an informed citizen, someone who is aware of the basic challenges facing his or her communities and country. It is only when you become fully aware of the problems facing you that you can begin to act. Without knowledge of a problem, you can`t endeavour towards finding a solution.

South Africa-Washington International Program

South Africa-Washington International Program

I propose to base this blog on how active citizenship in the context of South Africa can gear the country towards a better future. In particular, this is a call to young people who make up the majority of citizens in this country. In the Republic of South Africa, we are a nation well-respected all over the world for courageously and stubbornly fighting to strike down an unjust system of governance based on racial discrimination and inequality. Not only did we overcome oppression, but we also created a democratic nation, a community where all humankind have the privilege and right to live irrespective of colour, race, or religious beliefs.

Thousands of South African citizens put their lives on the line to ensure that these achievements were accomplished. But these achievements have often been used as scapegoats when the South African government fails to deliver on its promises to its citizens. The government, as well as the people of this country, seems to take the view that achieving freedom and democracy in South Africa was the ultimate goal and now the battle is won. I would argue though that achieving freedom and democracy in South Africa was but the first step towards achieving a better future and life for this nation and its people. It should not be about how we achieved freedom that defines us, but it should be about what we do with that hard-won freedom now. Nigerian author, Ben Okri, once said “it is not overcoming the nightmare that determines your character; it is about what you do with the long days of sunlight once the sun has risen”. As much as our fight against oppression was difficult to overcome, the biggest challenge that remains is how to utilise the freedom to benefit the country as a whole.

It becomes critical for all citizens to be active in our current issues and strive towards making a difference in our communities. It is even more critical that the young people make their presence felt in changing the face of South Africa to be what it truly should be: a country that belongs to all who live in it with equal treatment from the law and equal benefits in opportunities. In 1976 it was students in this country who changed the face of South Africa from what it was during the dark days of Apartheid. It was students as young as 13 who stood up against an unjust education system designed to oppress certain people. It was young people who put their lives on the line to say enough is enough. These young citizens were informed of the challenges they faced, and were therefore able to come up with possible solutions to their problems. They fought and died for a better future for all of us, but today they must be saddened as they watch us squander the possibilities of our time.

I wish to propose to this to the young people of this country:

Our biggest problem is not that we have an incapable government; it is that we have unwilling citizens, especially young ones. Everyone tends to feel that someone else is responsible for the country’s ills. It is about time we ask ourselves: What does it really mean to be a citizen? To whom does South Africa really belong? And most importantly, who bears the burden of solving the problems of this country? It is about time we realise that any problem facing South Africa is a problem facing each and every citizen of this country. No government or political party can do it alone.

We often blame our government for the ever spreading problems in our nation, but we also stand by as spectators when the same government squanders the possibilities of our time. We blame our leaders for all the problems that go unsolved when we should in fact blame ourselves, for our leaders are what we enable them to be.

Currently, our own citizens are killed weekly by police officers who are supposed to be public protectors, for standing up and fighting for their basic rights. One of the greatest benefits of democracy is the ability to fight for your rights; why then should one be killed for fighting for their rights? After 18 years into democracy there are schools without textbooks in South Africa, but still we haven’t taken action. We are complacent and passive on the most critical issues. The time is now where people, especially young people, of this country need to form a voice strong enough to articulate the needs of South African people.

It is about time that young South Africans revisit the journey we have travelled since 1976; there is so much we can learn from that youth generation. After all, the purpose of history is so that we can learn from it. The greater the mistake, the greater the lesson and in South Africa we have certainly made enough mistakes in the past to learn from. A wise man once said “He, who does not learn from history, is doomed to repeat its mistakes.” By being complacent, by being passive, we are failing to learn from history.

I hereby urge all young people of South Africa to learn from history and be active citizens. The first step is to get involved in community building in order to become informed. My participation in the South Africa-Washington International Program (SAWIP), a program that nurtures and sharpens the leadership skills of diverse young South Africans, has exposed me to some of the most critical issues this nation faces. As a result of this exposure, I have developed a need to be an active citizen of my country by making positive changes. This experience has made me realise that by being informed of the challenges, I have become more inclined to act and get involved in community building. As young people, we need to develop a positive mind-set of hope for a better tomorrow.

The majority of young citizens in this country feel that the government has failed them. While this might be true, we must also be conscience of the fact that we are also failing ourselves each and everyday when we decide not to stand up against injustices. The time has come for young people to play their role. We have no alternative but to act. It’s the only way forward and always has been. If we fail to take responsibility, the efforts of the past generations to pave a way for a better and a brighter future for us will have been a meaningless effort. If we as young people could challenge ourselves to be effective change agents imagine the effect it would have on generations to come.

South African history books often note: “There lived a great generation of young, courageous and active citizens in 1976”. In the future, when the next generations read their history books, they too must pause and say “there lived a young, active generation in the 21st century who restored South Africa with pride”. This is our challenge as young people of this country. This is our overwhelming responsibility.

Zola is completing his second year of law at the University of the Western Cape. In 2010, Zola started a study group where he tutored his peers in his community. He is currently establishing a program that will tutor, mentor and motivate students in his community to graduate from high school, as many do not complete their studies. He is currently part of the Emerging Leaders Academy and Street Law at UWC, and is also serving in the Student Housing Committee at his residence. Zola was a member of the SAWIP Class of 2012, and is also a recipient of the Allan Gray Fellowship Award in 2012, making him only the 4th recipient of the award at UWC. In the future he aspires to be in the forefront of African leaders who strive to promote human rights and ensure equal treatment under law.

The South Africa-Washington International Program (SAWIP) is a six-month leadership, service and professional development program that recruits 15 high-potential South African students from three top South African universities each year in pursuit of its mission to inspire, develop and support a diverse new generation of emerging South African leaders from multiple disciplines.

Visit or follow @SAWIPlive for more information. For program or donor queries, please e-mail