"Raise those voices and discover your society!"

Posted on June 18, 2012
It's official, I have a new icon. Fezeka Gxwayibeni! She's not a veteran or a 'struggle stalwart' (as they say at funerals) she's young. Not sure how young, but definitely under 30 because she belongs to a group called Activate! whose cut-off age is 30! I found my new icon in the Sunday Times – yes, right there on page 17 of the Review section on the 17th June, the day after Youth Day.

Why's she my new icon? Two good reasons 1) after months of listening to the boss going on about the 'secrecy bill' I've finally read something that makes me understand why access to information is so important for real life and 2) because Fezeka doesn't just sit on the couch and wine, she stands up and tells the world, 'raises her voice' to put things right. Listen to this.

'This year I was nominated to be part of the leadership initiative called Activate! One of our first tasks as Activators was to better understand our communities and their official development plans.

I know my community well, so i thought it would be easy to find someone who had access to the relevant information. But no one could help me. Nobody knew what was going on in their own backyard! I went to the Civic centre in Fish Hoek, which is responsible for services in Masi [Masiiphumelele]. Immediately I was treated with suspicion. The lady at reception snapped at me: 'Who are you to ask for this information? Why do you want it?' I wasn't rude or aggressive. I kept calm and just kept asking questions: What did the census say about Masi? How was it founded? What are the plans to get electricity to everyone in the community? She got increasingly irritated, but eventually gave me the details of a monthly municipal meeting and said i should ask people there. I was so relieved. It was a start and I was determined to follow the tracks until i had the information I needed.

Unfortunately my excitement was short-lived. As I sat in the meeting I realised that even though there was black skin in the room, there was no black voice in the debates. Even the coloured community from Ocean view didn't have a voice. The conversation was all about how to improve Fish Hoek School's sports fields. As the conversation continues, I got angrier and angrier! Yes, the young people of Fish Hoek needed good facilities, but why were the issues of my community any less important?'

Then she talks about other Activate! participants who had the same experience, not just with government but with NGO's and private people too . Itumeleng, from Orange Farm could only get hold of a document from 1996, nothing later than that! Nobuhle and Justice from Cosmo City couldn't find out why the streets in the low-income area are named after African countries and the streets where bonded properties are, are named after American cities and states. Philimone from Katlehong asked to meet with some NGO's in his area but they refused to meet him until he had sent them his resume. Poor Lesego who was taking picture in Houghton was cross questioned by security guards who'd been told that there was a suspicious person walking around with a camera. But is seems to have all been worthwhile anyway, because even if they didn't get the information they wanted, they learnt something.



'In sharing our stories, we realised how little we knew about the real situation in our communities - the details of the challenges they face, the resources that could be mobilised and the opportunities that could be exploited to improve life circumstances. This was a real wake-up call. Active citizenry is about developing a common vision of the country, city, town or rural area we want to live in - not just whining when services are not up to scratch. It is about people who know what all the noughts really mean when R20 million is siphoned from municipal coffers. It is about a society that expects openness and answers to tough questions, and doesn't feel stymied by indifferent officials in plush offices or cowed by facetious fat cats in big sedans.'

She's one smart lady, because she says she doesn't want to go back to the past, and the people versus the state situation which would just make everyone paranoid. But she does make the point that the public sector must be 'open to debate and scrutiny' and I agree - government has got a mandate, and a budget to make the country a better place for everyone, and we want to know what their plans are and how they spend that money, and we won't know that unless we strat harassing them with questions. As Fezeka says:



'If we don't start raising our voices and asking informed questions, how can we ever hold our leaders - in government, business and civil society - accountable? We live in a country where poverty and wealth live side by side. If we can't quantify the disparities, how will we ever overcome them? If we leave the Hawks alone to uncover corruption, how much petty theft from the poor will go unnoticed - and how massive will be the losses compounded across the country? More positively, if we don't share the same vision for our communities, how will we know how we can best contribute to realising that dream? Until we start asking the right questions we might as well already be living under a repressive Secrecy Act'

What impresses me most about Fezeka is that she's not just asking young people to raise their voices to protest. She's calling on us to access the information we need to be able to engage effectively as democratic citizens who want to make a real difference. That's why she's my new icon!

Fezeka Gxwayibeni's article 'Raise those voices and discover your society'appeared in the Sunday Times of 17 June 2012.

To access a copy of the article, see the link on the Democracy in Africa website

For more information on Activate! Leadership and Pubic Innovation Programme, see their website.