Engaged and active citizens can improve transparency and accountability, build trust and precipitate important reforms in society, philanthropist and businessman Sandile Zungu told graduands at the Faculty of Commerce and Graduate School of Business (GSB) graduation ceremony on Friday morning.
Zungu, who has a BSc (Eng) in Mechanical Engineering (1988) and MBA (1995) from UCT, has a long business pedigree, including his position as executive chair of Zungu Investments Company. He is also a member of the UCT Council and of the GSB's board of advisors.
He said that government, business, labour and even sport were all the poorer without engaged citizenry – as had been reflected by the recent FIFA scandal.
"The pervasive corruption and pervasive poverty amid plenty ... the gravity of our situation can leave us feeling helpless, especially in an environment where you know your vote should count."
The temptation, he said, was to "bury our heads, walk away, shut the door on our future".
"Yet we mustn't.
"We can act. The agency for change lies with us; we can engage governments, we can engage corporates, we can engage as citizen activists for justice and equity."
Zungu said that there was a global move to a more citizen-centric approach to governments.
"An engaged citizenry is good for governance and the political, academic and corporate spheres. Engaged citizens improve transparency and accountability ... Active participation increases the potential to keep our environment hygienically free of corruption."
The engaged citizen is good for business too, he added.
"Shareholder activists, previously considered corporate raisers, are admired now for sparking change in the boardrooms – and for pushing boards to develop best practice."
The competing forces of profit, environmental concerns and social responsiveness compelled institutions to make a paradigm shift.
"Businesses and organisations no longer own the people they employ. New relationships have been fostered in which employees are regarded as citizens with rights and with a stake in the wealth of the organisation and how it should be governed."
Zungu said that the same applied to dynamic institutions such as UCT.
"But a nation that refuses to learn from its past will be condemned to repeat its past mistakes and be consigned to developmental stagnation and erosion," he added.
"Sustainability is assured only if the citizens have a stake in the process."
He cited a local example of how active citizenry had brought back hope and dignity.
In a recent coup by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in the Free State, TAC activists had campaigned to expose the corruption that led to the collapse of parts of the health system.
"This activism prompted the health minister to send a task team to the province."
Zungu said the incident had showed what ordinary people could do to ensure good governance.
"Active citizenry involves both the individual and the collective. As graduates you can transform the world in which we live. And I expect you to do just that."
Story by Helen Swingler. Photo by Michael Hammond.
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