Middle classes can aid civil society

Mzukisi Qobo’s piece on the political passivity of the middle classes is one of the most important opinions expressed in a very long time (Why are the middle classes so politically passive? June 15 ). Mr Qobo’s thesis is that the middle class is one of the most passive groups in society and yet there is so much to be done. As a result of this passivity, Mr Qobo says, we are losing the capacity for political awareness as rooted in active civic participation. In essence, Mr Qobo says that the black middle class feels it doesn’t need to be active and that the white middle class feels it has no right to be active.

We agree with Mr Qobo entirely. South African society too often behaves as though representative democracy is all that is legitimate in expressing democratic rights. Yet as Mr Qobo points out, the middle classes carry the burden of financing, through their taxes, infrastructure and social services they hardly use, such as public hospitals and schools. They then carry the burden, after tax, of paying for similar yet more efficient services from the private sector. As Mr Qobo states, we tend to cede leadership to politicians as if they have a divine right to lead and their views are sacrosanct merely because the numerical vote has propelled them into power.

As long as we are citizens who vote and pay taxes, we have a right and a duty to oppose bad ideas, bad decision-making and bad leadership. Common sense and experience dictate that the pursuit of the "national democratic revolution" (and the "second transition") is archaic, and doomed to failure. The dichotomy of economic systems that seeks to accommodate countervailing political philosophies suggests a failure of leadership, courage and an understanding of how economies work.

We are frustrated beyond belief by the expediency of a political relationship that results in an obscene failure to adopt policies that are likely to create jobs, in favour of a partner which is incapable of creating jobs or of having the vision to do so, in the name of self-interest.

We allow misinformed and mischievous politicians, who do not know better than us, to dictate the debate. We allow the powerful to use the methods of expressing political views that used to be the preserve of the powerless, presumably because the intricacies of the legitimate politics cannot be harnessed properly by the ruling elite.

Civil society does extraordinary work in feeding, educating, providing healthcare, providing legal assistance, etc, to the marginalised that the governing party purports to stand for. There are many ways citizens can be involved even if it is only to give moral or financial support to civil society groups to act on their behalf. There are groups that oppose tolling highways, that challenge government legislation and decision-making, that promote or defend the constitution, that expose corruption, that counsel rape survivors, that look after orphans, that help to provide people with HIV/AIDS medication, that try to overcome the legacies of appalling education, that produce research and statistics that are crucial to intelligent decision-making.

If you cannot do it yourself, support those who would be delighted to do it for you.

Sara Gon

Operations Manager, Helen Suzman Foundation

25 June 2012