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The Challenge of Rights: A Tale Of Our Society

11 January 2013, 12:22

A trail of destruction caused by strikes has conspicuously scarred the country from Limpopo to the Western Cape. Indeed we are living in an interesting epoch. Name-calling is the order of the day. It is now common to hear derogatory names like ‘the tea girl’, ‘thieves’ and ‘refugees’ as people of the same nation unashamedly trade insults at each other in the public sphere. Privileged owners of capital dine and wine lavishly in expensive places oblivious of the conspicuous impoverished lives of the ordinary folk. Public office bearers engage in all sorts of self-aggrandizing activities unapologetically. On this side of the world, the political opposition can get away with not having a majority in parliament because they will just take the government to court and stop it from implementing anything whilst they themselves cry that they ruling party is making their constituency ungovernable. This is a land where the media can publish offensive material for economical reasons and argue that it is in the interest of the public. Yes, this is South Africa, a land of freedom and rights. Rights are after all provided for in the constitution. Welcome, to the jungle of rights.

They say lack of education is an abuse but I argue, even more catastrophic is a partial, committed and incomplete education that is conveniently packaged as absolute and final for the consumption of the masses. In recent times the challenges that South Africa has been facing can be attributed to a tragic misinterpretation of rights. Ours is a society that views rights as absolute, fixed and uncompromising. Thanks to politicians, business, media, academics and civil activists who whilst performing pedagogic functions in our society have continuously purveyed the masses with a dose of a single story on rights – an understanding that eliminates the responsibilities that comes with rights. Rights simply translate to the uncompromising autonomy of the individual; be it to draw a painting that is clearly offensive and defending it on the basis of the right to freedom of expression or destroying infrastructure on the basis of a right to assembly and demonstration. What is however poignant is that, as the rhetoric of rights and freedom becomes all the more powerful and persuasive than ever before, the popular understanding of rights has disproportionately become increasingly narrowly defined.

As we count the costs in the aftermath of Marikana we are reminded of the price that the collective citizenry pays when rights are exercised without restraint. Capitalists were riding on a high of ‘rightful’ extraction of mining resources without being sensitive to the rights of workers. Theirs was a season of merry which had constitutional backing. After all, the system of production is a capitalist system which enjoys the full support of the constitution. Not that the workers were saints in this calamity. In the name of exercising the right to assemble and demonstrate, workers went on a rampant destructive spree that saw lives being lost, millions of machinery being destroyed and looted. In the name of rights, workers destroyed the equipment that translates to their only livelihood. Add the matrix of dependency that characterizes our society and then one begins to understand to grasp the actual ramifications of the workers’ actions on their own livelihoods.  As I watched the events in Marikana unfold, workers who spoke to journalists were not apologetic about their ‘right’ to the land on which the mines lay. So determined were the workers on the absolute nature of their birthright to extract from the mines that they even called for mine owners to return to ‘their countries.’ But wait a minute, where would a person like Ramaphosa go? Is he less of a South African than the workers who were striking?

Even the state was not to be outdone in this ignorant application of rights. Whilst rightfully in possession of the monopoly of violence, the state, in a bid to exercise its mandate of enforcing the rule of law went overboard and reacted to the criminal elements within the miners with disproportionate and excessive force. So catastrophic was the action of state law enforcement agents that 34 miners lost their right to life in one act of madness.

Well it doesn’t end with Marikana, politics has become so embroiled in legal fights in the name of rights. Constitutional conservatives have been so deaf to the changing realities of South African society today. It is now fashionable that political parties mention the right to defend the constitution to oppose any policy made by the elected ANC ruling party. It is as if a majority in electoral processes does not count anymore, what matters now is a party’s ability to have funds to continuously court the courts. Oh yes, it is that easy to delay policy initiatives that are earmarked to address the changes in society today or in worst cases stop them on the basis that they are ‘unconstitutional.’ The political sphere is now being determined by an elite group of lawyers who argue their client’s position for huge amounts of money all the while the masses anxiously wait for delivery of service that never comes as politicians engage in money driven legal warfare.   

But as politicians engage in costly legal warfare to defend their ‘rights,’ the structural faultlines within society have in turn unabatedly widened at an alarming rate. Business owners too, have exhibited deafness on the need to cut profit margines and accommodate genuine social needs. They obliviously either hold the state at ransom or pay lawyers to defend their right to enterprise.  On the other hand the masses have resorted to familiar ways of defending their ‘rights’ -  through destruction of property as has been seen in areas like De Doorns and Marikana. Extreme calls to evict business owners and to nationalize the economy are increasingly becoming popular among many a disappointed masses.  One does not need to be a rocket scientist to map the contour lines from the omnipresent service delivery protests, the mines unrest, to the recent farm unrests. This is a society that is fade up with poverty and inequality that is continuously reproduced on the basis of uncompromising rights.

I do not imply that the constitution is inherently bad. On the contrary! The constitution is what maps our ideal society. The challenge is that our understating of the constitution has been partial, committed and incomplete. Each of us has fetished certain parts of the constitution and for personal gain. Individuals have embraced absolute rights without embracing the responsibilities that are concomitant with them. This situation has been worsened by the historical inequalities on which our society was born on. As these dynamics play out, the current rhetoric on rights has done nothing more than increase intolerance amongst society’s own kind. Dialogue has been stifled as ‘champions of rights’ run to the courts with their eyes and ears closed to defend the dear constitution. Meanwhile society has become further polarized as shelved demands begin to grow on the backdrop of an increasing decline in hope.

Let’s face it, for everyone of us to enjoy rights then we need exercise responsible behavior. Finish. Such responsible behavior allows one to compromise and tolerate for the greater good of the society. My fear is that those that believe in the ultra power of the courts in protecting their rights whilst they unceasingly trample on the rights of others will wake up to a rude awakening that rights are a social construction. That rights were created for all and not the few elite who can afford lawyers to defend their narrow interests.

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