A constitution under siege

2011-12-17 13:41

South African politicians have a lot to learn, and there is no ­better place to start than ­looking at the guiding values contained in the Constitution.

If we expect our children to learn from the past, why should politicians not have a ­refresher course on the journey from apartheid to democracy?

We would have a lot less litigation and court battles if politicians and civil ­servants in the executive understood the Constitution and sought to follow its ­prescripts rather than attack it.

Those who have accused the ANC of having “sold out” by making too many concessions in the run-up to democracy insult the integrity of Nelson Mandela and the thousands of comrades, black and white, through whose blood and sweat the Constitution was written.

Promoting respect for the Constitution should be part of the job description of every politician and civil servant.

Without it, how do we expect people to respect the rule of law, build a nation of patriots and shape a united identity?

The reconciliation talks were a special time for politics in the country, when the apartheid regime agreed to sit around the same table with comrades in the ANC and SA Communist Party, along with ­tripartite member Cosatu and many other political parties, to become part of the roadmap for a democratic future.

Sworn enemies sitting down, arguing and relenting for a country on the brink of a racial civil war, before giving birth to what Archbishop Emeritus Desmond ­Tutu famously termed the “Rainbow ­Nation”, remains one of this country’s ­biggest triumphs and lessons.Concessions had to be made in a struggle like ours.

For those of us who were there, it was no easy walk to freedom. Those hard-won gains must certainly not be discounted lightly as our democracy heads into its late teenage years.

Furthermore, it is absurd for one to be party to an agreement to a constitution, only years later to dismiss it as one of the root causes for the lack of transformation in South Africa.

This is what Ngoako Ramatlhodi, the ANC national executive committee member and correctional ­services deputy minister, and other senior members of the ANC inside and outside government have ­recently done.

He claimed the liberation movement was overwhelmed by a desire to create a society bereft of any form of discrimination and, as a result, made fatal ­concessions. Ramatlhodi wrote: “We thus have a constitution that reflects ...a compromise tilted heavily in favour of forces against change.

In our case, the black ­majority enjoys empty political power while forces against change reign ­supreme in the economy, judiciary, public opinion and civil society.”

This view attacks the very heart of what we fought for. We have – as the Constitution in our hands – the levers of power.

The Constitution is clear that we must promote social equity among our people – the right to education, health, welfare and basic services.

The ANC did not sell out.

If senior leaders in the movement today are trying to find a scapegoat for their failures, they ­really ought to look elsewhere, starting within government where some of the “forces of change” have been a disappointment.

Politicians should not try to absolve ­themselves from blame for things that have not materialised for South Africans in accordance with the goals and spirit of the Constitution.

The Bill of Rights talks about changing society as a whole and not making ­selected groups within the political elite wealthy or recipients of BEE largesse.We have had a democratic government since 1994.

Any change that has been slow in coming is not a fault of the “old guard” but due to the fact that our leadership has not managed to implement its vision ­accordingly and within the ambit of the Constitution.

The challenges we experience today happened on our watch.That is why the divide between rich and poor in South Africa has widened to the point where, sadly, we have become the country with the dishonour of having the worst inequality.

It is a wake-up call for us to shift into gear before it is too late.What worries me even more is the ­undue haste with which party bosses have rammed the “Secrecy Bill” through Parliament.

The arguments advanced strike at the very foundations of our constitutional democracy.

The deliberate omission of a public­interest defence clause, the backdoor clauses that give arbitrary power to the minister of intelligence and the draconian penalties for the breach of law hark back to the dark past of apartheid which ­deliberately sought to crush our voices of opposition to injustice.

Even more shocking was the outburst of this minister that those who oppose the bill are working for unspecified foreign ­intelligence agencies, or the accusation by the chief whip of the ANC that the opposition is being steered by some, again ­unspecified, “foreign NGO”.

All these are worrying signals of a veil of secrecy and fear being drawn across ­society to stifle democratic dissent.

This is not a battle between state and media but one where the constitutional rights of ­citizens are being threatened by leaders obsessed with conspiracy theories.

It is not about foreign spies and NGOs, but a fearful elite holding on to power and using the rise of the securocrats in the state to protect their spoils.

At times like this, we need to go back to the founding fathers and understand why we need to defend the Constitution.

I went alongside the greatest patriots of our liberation struggle to the first ­democratic parliament in 1994 firmly convinced that we needed an active ­citizenry to ensure that our democracy meant more than the simple act of exercising our vote.

In the first months, I clearly recall a conversation I had with Joe Slovo when we were being heckled at a residents’ meeting in Gugulethu.

He said: “Jay, it is important for our ­democracy that the masses bang on our doors. It will keep us on our toes and ­focused on delivery of the RDP.”

It is unbelievable that we can today have leaders argue that our protest marches on Parliament disrupt the work of parliamentarians and undermine democracy.

Never in my entire life could I imagine that a senior ANC leader could speak such terms, let alone argue that the judiciary was an obstacle to transformation.

In fact, the judiciary for the most part has been at the forefront of deepening the socioeconomic rights of the people in such cases as securing antiretroviral treatment and housing.

I realise now our best defence is an ­active citizenry.

We need to return to ­activism.

We should be outraged at the corruption and inefficiency of service ­delivery.We won our rights through hard and long struggle.

The right of our vote should never be taken for granted.

My message to South Africans is to ­resist any attempt to reshape the history of the past, especially when an attack on the Constitution has the ability to impact negatively on the future.

Let us not later complain as the tyranny of silence and fear rule the land again.

Safeguarding our future is the responsibility of every South African.

After all, it is what we fought for.

It is the only lasting legacy we leave to our ­children and the future generations who follow us.

»Visit my blog: Jaynaidoo.org

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