The Meaning of Citizenship.

By michaelfraser, 31 January, 2012

The Meaning of Citizenship.

Sharing thoughts from the book "Community, The Structure of Belonging" by Peter Block.


The conventional definition of citizenship is concerned with the act of voting and taking a vow to uphold the constitution and laws of a country. This is narrow and limiting. Too many organisations that are committed to sustaining democracy in the world and at home have this constrained view of citizenship.

Citizenship is not just about voting, or even about having a vote. To construe the essence of citizenship primarily as the right to vote reduces its power, as if voting ensures a democracy. It is certainly a feature of democracy, but as Fareed Zakaria points out in his book "The Future of Freedom", the right to vote does not guarantee a civil society, or in our terms a restorative one.


When we think of citizens as just voters, we reduce them to being consumers of elected officials and leaders. We see this most vividly at election time, when candidates become products, issues become the message, and the campaign is a marketing distribution system for the selling of the candidate.

Voters become target markets whose most important role is to meet the political candidates who impose themselves as the saviors and the solution to all our problems. Some candidates are even elevated to cult heroes who demand 100% loyalty to the person rather than the noble cause which they (the candidates) are supposed to submit themselves to.

This is the power of the consumer, which is no power at all.

Through this lens we can understand why so many people choose not to vote.

They do not believe their action can impact the future. It is partly a self-chosen stance and partly an expression of helplessness that grows out of empty promises that are made by politicians at election time, only to be followed up with lack of contact and communication with citizens, a sense of superiority and self-importance. A lack of respect for the people who have elected them to serve.

By the way, we should understand, and our elected representatives should be made to understand, that we don’t vote them into power, we vote for them to serve our interests and our needs.

We do not vote for leaders. We vote for representatives, people to represent us.


However this way of thinking is not an excuse not to vote, but it does say that our work is to build the capacity of citizens to be accountable and to become responsible creators of community.

We shouldn’t allow these circumstances to marginalise the real meaning of citizenship. As citizens we have every right, in fact it is our responsibility to demand that we be treated with dignity and respect, and that we receive the services that we pay so dearly for.

The idea of what it means to be a citizen is too important and needs to be taken back to its more profound value.


Citizenship is a state of being. It is a choice for activism and care.

In her book “Laying Ghosts to Rest” Mamphela Ramphele says that citizenship is an active state. It is being the guardian of the land you inherit.

“Citizenship as stewardship is about taking ownership of the gift of freedom. Stewardship is about meeting the obligations we willingly committed to in our Constitution.” 

A citizen is one who is willing to do the following:

• Hold oneself accountable for the well-being of the larger collective of which we are a part.

• Choose to own and exercise power rather than defer or delegate it to others.

• Enter into a collective possibility that gives caring and restorative community its own sense of being.

• Acknowledge that community grows out of the possibility of citizens.

Community is not built by specialist expertise, or great leadership, or improved services; it is built by great citizens.

• Attend to the gifts and capacities of all others, and act to bring the gifts of those on the margin into the centre.


To create communities where citizens reclaim their power, we need to shift our thinking and belief about who is in charge and where power actually resides.

Being powerful means that my experience, my discovery, my happiness and my destiny are mine to create.

This view empowers us to see how an audience creates a performance, how children create parents, how students create teachers, how customers create a business, how citizens create community, and how community creates leaders.


In every case it puts choice into our hands instead of having us wait for the transformation and goodwill of leaders to give us the future we desire.

If our intention is to create the possibility of an alternative future, then we need a future formed by our own determination, our own hands.

A handcrafted future. 

The Freedom Charter drawn up at The Congress of The People in Kliptown in 1955 is a unique document in that for the first time ever, the people (marginilised citizens) were actively involved in formulating their own vision of an alternative society.

And this Charter has been the guiding vision of the liberation struggle over the years. Many sacrifices have been made to realise this vision.

But the commitment and the dedication to this vision is what drove ordinary people from all walks of life to work side by side to realise this compelling vision.

This is citizenship in action. 

After the miracle elections of 27 April 1994 we trusted and expected our elected representatives in the government of our new democracy to make the Freedom Charter real, to make it the reality that our people would experience and enjoy after the long struggle for dignity and respect.

With the loyalty, respect, trust and high expectations that we had in our representatives we understandably relaxed our alertness and lowered our guard. 

After all, they were our trusted and respected leaders. The promise of a better life for all was never in any doubt. And over the years much has been done to restore our dignity. Many houses have been built. Many schools have been built.

Primary health care facilities have been brought to where our people live.

Our Constitution is the envy of the world. We have hosted the Rugby World Cup, the ICC Cricket World Cup and the Fifa Football World Cup.

We have won 2 Rugby World Cups, 1995 and 2007.

There are many other very notable achievements that we’ve made over the last 17 years.


But, in all honesty, we’ve also experienced a very worrying trend over the years.

A trend that is fast becoming a slippery slope from the magic and high expectations we experienced in 1994.

Our elected representatives have moved the focus from serving our people to serving themselves.

Our democracy has been shifted from people-centred to self-centred.

As citizens we can do one of two things:

1. We can capitulate our responsibility of citizenship, accept the status quo and just keep on moaning about corruption, poor service delivery, and the arrogance of our elected representatives.

2. Or we can actively and vigorously challenge the degeneration that is taking root in our beloved country.


As citizens we must demand better because we deserve better.


Mike Fraser.




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