Use Constitution to reach our dreams

2018-03-25 06:22
Thuli Madonsela

Thuli Madonsela

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Ours is not only a ground-breaking Constitution that was ahead of its time. It is a visionary piece of work that not only painted a clear vision of the South Africa we want, but also anticipated and made risk provisions for unprecedented pitfalls of democracy, including delinquency at the highest echelon of the executive branch of government.

When Stellenbosch vice-chancellor professor Vim de Villiers read the institution’s restitution statement recently, we were reminded that one of the core features of the Constitution is its pursuit of social justice. Though congruent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the Constitution was ahead of its time in boldly providing equal access to justiciable social and economic rights, such as the right to access to housing, healthcare services, sufficient food and water and to social security, basic and further education and the protection of children’s rights, including extensive socioeconomic guarantees for every child.

The human rights guarantees are backed by clear provisions regarding the country’s founding values that include human dignity; the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms; nonracialism and nonsexisim; and the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law, accountability, responsiveness and openness. It has unprecedented provisions on the character of the state with emphasis on the highest level of professional ethics for all state functionaries and a requirement that constitutional obligations must be performed diligently and without delay. The state architecture is equally groundbreaking, incorporating innovative accountability mechanisms, such as the Constitutional Court and chapter 9 institutions.

I am one of those who can say the constitutional promise has been real and the democracy dividend for myself and my descendants tangible. My benefit from the constitutional human rights guarantees has made my life an example of the reality anticipated in the assertion that equal opportunity will be achieved the day the daughter of a farmworker has the same chances in life as the son of a farmer.

My father started work life as a farmworker and my mother a domestic worker. I am a first-generation, privileged black South African of African descent. Although I cannot rule out hard work and providence, my privileged position is clearly due to the fruits of democracy.

The constitutional promise though is not to some but all. Have we ensured in all our transformation measures – be they laws, policies, plans, decisions and others actions – that we go out of our way to leave no one behind? Clearly not. Earlier this Human Rights Month, one child died in a deplorable pit latrine in a rural school in the Eastern Cape. Stolen lives of children include that about 2 000 000 children under 12, mostly girls, head child-headed households, mostly living in abject poverty.

It was the humble requests to government for indoor toilets by Gogo Malita Tsolo and Grandpa Mokhethi Mochesane, survivors of the Sharpeville Massacre, that changed the course of the struggle for liberation in South Africa and global solidarity. They still live in the same homes they had on that fateful day when thousands of unarmed residents marched against the injustice of pass laws, that denied them human dignity and freedom of movement, among other rights, and were brutally attacked by the police, leaving some dead and injured. I felt bad when I read their story, particularly given that on the same day I had the luxury of declining an apartment because it had no en suite bathroom. Although I was detained during apartheid, mine can be said to have been a minor inconvenience compared with the price others paid for our freedom and the democracy dividends we enjoy today.

That these are part of the masses we have left behind regarding the fruits of democracy or democracy dividend is unquestionable. Theirs is a similar fate to that of Palesa Mosa who, having been arrested and tortured as a 13 year old on June 16 1976 and thereafter harassed by the police, lost her chance to improve her life through education.

With the meagre income she gets as an informal trader, not only does she often go to bed without food, she is unable to send her child to university. Great as the waiver is of university fees for families earning less than R350 000 for new university entrants, this cannot help Mosa as the scheme is restricted to public universities, with limited spaces.

Mosa’s life is an example of the ugly face of poverty. Stats SA says one in two South Africans is poor. It says one in three lives in extreme poverty, which includes often going to bed without food.

A key concern regarding continuing socioeconomic exclusion, is that, if not arrested through a “hand-up”, it reproduces itself from generation to generation. If Mosa’s daughter does not get tertiary education, chances are she, like her mother, will be poor. Her children might be poor unless the cycle is broken.

Government clearly must act and the president has given the minister of basic education an ultimatum to fix the school sanitation infrastructure. What about us? What’s in it for us? It all boils down to James Patrick Kinney’s poem, The Cold Within. If we don’t join hands to ensure that no one is left behind, we are prolonging the pain of exclusion. We’ll continually experience angry communities and racial scuffles for as long as there is injustice somewhere, there can’t be sustainable peace anywhere.

Not fully explored is the reality that there can be no justice without restitution and no peace without justice. The reality though is not that there is no restitution or remedying of past injustices. Clearly for many, like me, South Africa has delivered the constitutional promise and democracy dividend.

The problem is that we are not adopting a system and the comprehensive approach that ensures every person and community receives a just and equitable share of the democracy dividend and no one is left behind.

A new dawn seems to be on the horizon, among its dimensions the M-Plan For Social Justice. Together we can accelerate inclusive access of the fruits of democracy and the democracy dividend. Our Constitution is a bridge to the future. But, as with all bridges, we must walk across it to arrive at the South Africa of our dreams.

- Madonsela is professor and chair of social justice at Stellenbosch University and founder of the Thuma Foundation

Read more on:    constitution

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