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Citizen and citizenship are powerful words. They speak of respect, of rights, of dignity. In his 2006 Nelson Mandela Memorial lecture, President Thabo Mbeki raised critical questions about the kind of citizenship we should strive for in South Africa.

In particular, Mbeki made a plea for "moral" citizenship - a type of citizenship that should aim to address the many challenges threatening the moral fibre of our young democracy such as rampant crime and violence, deepening poverty, the spread of Aids and ascending corruption and dishonesty.

The official call for moral regeneration and "moral" citizenship is a sad acknowledgement that after more than 12 years of democracy, there prevails a moral vacuum in our society that needs to be addressed and filled, not only through better laws and rules (we have enough of those), but through better people. People with the necessary courage and moral vigilance to speak out and act against those few who undermine the rights and dignity of fellow citizens.

Indeed, South Africa's hard won democracy is going through a testing period as increasing numbers of citizens regard most politicians and government institutions with indifference and even distrust. This unfortunate trend has to be reversed if South Africa is to be regarded as the lion of Africa.

It is internationally accepted that conceptions of citizenship are best understood in context, especially in divided societies - of which Cape Town is a good example.

Cape Town's "rainbow" people are not only divided, but also diverse: it has a recent history of racially based forced segregation, it has no common language, no common culture, no common religion, no truly integrated socio-geographical spaces, and shocking extremes of wealth and poverty.

Yet, in the absence of any substantive commonality between Capetonians, what can be said to be the basis of the unity of the Mother City's demos? A common understanding of citizenship, perhaps?

Towards the end of 2006, the Foundation for Contemporary Research (FCR) conducted a survey to determine the perceptions of Capetonians regarding their understanding of citizenship.

A total of 200 questionnaires were completed. Respondents were 50% coloured, 30% African, 17% white and 3% Indian. Responses were clustered into three age groups: 18-30, 31-50, and 51 and above.

We wanted to find out how people see and experience citizenship in Cape Town, what people believe are the attributes of a good citizen, and whether people generally see themselves as good citizens.

Finally, we wanted to know whether people see local politicians as practising good citizenship, and whether local business are seen as good corporate citizens.

Such information is important if we are working towards establishing Cape Town as Africa's leading city.

In the FCR study, three categories emerged from the participants' responses on their understanding of citizenship. These categories were belonging, obeying rules and laws, and helping and respect for others.

The first question asked participants to tell what it meant to be a "citizen". Most respondents associated citizenship with "belonging".

Worth noting is that more than half of the African male respondents between 18-30 associated citizenship with the notion of "legality" (with reference to "legal ID documents and passports"), and "belonging in a country legally".

A number of African respondents, mainly in the 31-50 age group, stated that they do not feel like citizens in Cape Town. Comments included: "Cape Town is the most racially divided place and nothing is being done about it", "I cannot access my rights as a citizen in this place", and "I do not feel welcome here. Apartheid still goes on".

When asked what it meant to be a good citizen, the largest category of responses related to obeying rules and laws. The highest number of responses to this category was from the age group 31-50 (all races), while the lowest number of responses came from participants aged 18-30.

Many of the responses related to "respect for the law" and "not doing crime".

When asked what they were currently doing that demonstrates good citizenship, the overwhelmingly response was helping and respecting others. Many respondents mentioned helping out at church events and doing voluntary community service activities.

Statements characteristic of participant responses in relation to exhibiting good citizenship were: "pay my taxes on time", "do not litter", "get a job", "pay for government services", "studying further", "taking care of my family and community" and "voting in elections".

When asked whether people see local politicians as practising good citizenship, the response was a resounding "no". Comments included: "Politicians are fighting amongst each other instead of working together", "Not doing enough to address racism in Cape Town", "They are using government's money for their own benefit", "Crime still is on the increase", and "They make promises that they do not keep".

Positive comments included: "When there are floods and shack fires, they helped with clothes and food", and "I lived in a shack for 20 years. They delivered on their promise and gave me a house last year".

Most respondents were of the opinion that local businesses are practising good corporate citizenship in that they: "sponsor a lot of community projects", "are providing jobs and sponsoring children", "create job opportunities" and "contribute to economic growth".

Negative comments include: "They are sometimes involved in illegal activities", "The taxi owners are arrogant and do not care about the lives of people, only about money", and "They keep apartheid alive … only invest in white areas, not the townships".

Overall, the FCR study reveals that Capetonians want to contribute to their community, and that the ones who participated in this study seemed to understand the importance of respect, tolerance, justice and caring for fellow citizens.

President Mbeki's call for moral citizenship, therefore, resonates well with them as many believe that the success of a nation depends on the character, self-reliance, and responsibility of the citizens.

The study further points to a surprising range of common values and sentiments held about citizenship, expressed by ordinary people from a diverse range of backgrounds and geographic areas within the city.

The first is justice, which most people seem to associate with fairness, in that they expect the state and its representatives to act fairly and impartially towards its citizens: "Some citizens have more rights than others - why? Why do some politicians and those with money get better treatment than us poor people?"

A very basic need for recognition followed - the recognition of their intrinsic worth as human beings, their peculiarities and differences and, above all, their right to dignity and respect.

Township residents in particular prioritised dignity over everything else: "Dignity is everything for a citizen - and we have no dignity. We are treated like cattle in the clinics, on the trains, in the taxis."

Self-determination, to be able to exercise some degree of control over their lives, was very highly rated, with many indicating that "we have to be in control of our own issues, not outsiders … that is what we struggled for".

Solidarity - the space and opportunity to identify with others and act in unity with them, in their common claims for justice and recognition: "Citizenship is the right to express myself and the issues facing my community without fear of victimisation, it's about freedom to mobilise the community, to stand together and make noise when our rights are not respected."

These expressed sentiments and values provide us with critical building blocks with which we can potentially break down Cape Town's infamous spatial divides and create inclusive spaces of belonging epitomised by active citizenship, in which citizens would be relatively well-informed, speak their minds, attend political events, vote in local elections, serve on participatory community structures, and even consider the possibility of standing as municipal councillors.

A more critical consciousness among Capetonians about their rights and their realisation (or non-realisation, especially regarding socio-economic rights and increasingly people's right to personal security and safety from violent crime) needs to be advocated as this has the potential to contribute to greater political accountability, bring about more civic engagement with policy and political processes, as well securing a more stable and mature democracy in our city and country.

Davids is executive director at the Foundation for Contemporary Research, a public benefit organisation working to promote greater citizen participation and a pro-poor focus within local government in the Western Cape. {jcomments on}