Kumi Naidoo
Publication Date
June 1, 2008


This 7-page paper, published by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, addresses some conceptual definitions of participatory citizenship, gives a brief explanation of the correlation between citizenship and participation, discusses participatory democracy, and contrasts participatory democracy with representative democracy and portrays some flaws in relations between elected representatives and their electorates or constituencies. It then explores issues of inclusion versus exclusion and modalities for enhancing participation.

The paper defines participatory citizenship as "the fostering of improvements in relationships between the state and its citizens, and constructing new avenues to redefine relations between the privileged and the less powerful in society.... Embedded in democratic constitutions are rights and freedoms that accompany citizenship, and these rights and freedoms include participation. Participation in democracies should go beyond taking part in voting, and should include participation in governance processes. The notion of citizenship (especially in societies that are stratified) brings in several benefits to some groups and restricts the rights and freedoms of others, as it seldom accommodates completely people with lower status. Traditional notions of participation limit the participation of citizens to the voting processes in democracies and to their involvement with government-owned initiatives that provide services to groups which are of lesser sociopolitical or economic status."

The paper argues that, despite what may be characterised as representative elections, groups of people are excluded from participation based on identity related to: race, gender, age group, economic status, migrant status, ethnic status, disability, political inclinations, or where someone lives. In Africa, as stated here, laws, even constitutions, are changed without citizen inputs, particularly consultation of marginalised groups. Often civil society groups are the representatives of these groups. Civil society groups are being restricted by law in some countries. "In countries such as Swaziland and Zambia, opportunities for citizen participation and civil society actions are inhibited by established legislative laws, while in Zimbabwe similar laws target the media and constrain the activities of civil society and the opposition political parties."

The document recognises the importance of the fact that in the Southern African Developing Countries (SADC) region there have been successfully organised transparent elections and the peaceful transfer of power from incumbents to emerging leaders. However, in some SADC nations, elections, as stated here, "have been plagued with hostility and ruling parties have used various methods of imposing restrictions on the media and civil society." Relations between civil society organisations and governments in countries in Southern Africa are characterised as subservient, collaborative, or antagonistic, often depending on how closely funding is connected to the government. To enhance participation, the document suggests that there is a need for states and civil society organisations to have constructive relationships which are not dependent on sources of funding or the policies pursued by funding networks.

The paper concludes with suggestions for improved opportunity for civil society organisations to enhance citizen participation, leading to more participatory democracies: "Civil society organisations have been constrained by the actions of most governments, and most of these organisations have first to create avenues wherein they can operate in a flexible manner, before making attempts to have a say in government affairs. Effective participation is also constrained by insufficient funds and so the scope and the mandate of networks are limited. Participatory citizenship calls for a renaissance in the relations between citizens and the state and this includes space for participation by representatives of citizens, networks, individuals with unique identities and other non-state actors."


eCIVICUS newsletter on August 14 2008.