Living our rights

2017-12-10 05:53
Tongues on fire: Nomsa Mboneli (second from the right) with her winning junior debating team (from left) Nosipho Sokhela, Lesego Ngoasheng, Dineo Nojwaqa and Gwasa Tlolane. Picture: Vukile Dlwati

Tongues on fire: Nomsa Mboneli (second from the right) with her winning junior debating team (from left) Nosipho Sokhela, Lesego Ngoasheng, Dineo Nojwaqa and Gwasa Tlolane. Picture: Vukile Dlwati

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Losing her school blazer would change 15-year-old Nomsa Mboneli’s life forever. At Constitution Hill last weekend, Vukile Dlwati met her and other young debating stars to get a sense of what the Constitution means in young South Africans’ lives.

“How many of you know someone who went to bed on an empty stomach?”

Hands shoot into the air.

“How many of you know someone, maybe in your family, who lives in a shack?”

A fresh set of hands.

“And how many of you know someone who was sick and could not get to hospital?”

There are very few pupils, parents and teachers seated at the round tables in the old women’s jail at Constitution Hill who don’t relate to the questions being asked by Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron.

“We Constitutional Court judges don’t think we are doing a great job, honestly,” says the judge.

“We are fighting to make a Constitution that will work for you ... [It] is a working, living document that has not yet been fulfilled.

“We still have racism, sexual harassment...”

The pupils, who have been tucking in to a lunch of grilled chicken and hearty beef stew, are eagerly awaiting the announcement of which teams – one junior (Grade 8 and 9) and one senior (Grade 10 to 12) – have won the annual Constitution Hill Debating League.

Nomsa confronts racism

It’s a delighted Nomsa Mboneli who joins her team to accept the trophy for best junior debating side for successfully arguing that racism should be criminalised.

The 15-year-old Grade 9 pupil from Rhodesfield Technical High School in Kempton Park is ranked second among the junior debaters in the league, but, if she hadn’t lost her school blazer, she may not have been standing here today.

“It happened while I was playing sport. And my mother said: ‘You’re never doing anything that will require you to take off your uniform again.’ I thought I had to join debating.

“My father had told me about how it allows one to think critically. I was raised to question everything. I don’t trust anything anybody says to me until I do my own research,” says the savvy teen.

In action, Nomsa argues with conviction and self-confidence, taking to the podium with all her ducks in row. As the third speaker, she lunged at the opposition with a clear stance on racism.

“The truth is, people are black, white, Indian and other races ... We need to understand that we can never be able to completely eliminate this idea of race. We need to understand that each and every one is equal and that’s the idea of democracy.”

The opposing team argued that racism does exist, but that South Africa has bigger problems to deal with.

“That was the biggest strategic flaw they had in their debate,” says Nomsa afterwards. “We think that, because of our history, racism is something that people are willing to deal with.”

The truth is, many people are not.

Not long ago, Nomsa was confronted with the evil at school.

“We were excited because we got our marks back and we had passed. We were passing a classroom and this white teacher had a problem with us. He said: ‘Stop screaming! This is not a location school.’”

Nomsa paused and asked what he meant. That this is not the township? And what exactly does that mean?

He replied: “I mean that you people cannot be roaming around here screaming and making a noise.”

“Is that because I am black?” asked Nomsa.

He said: “That has nothing to do with this conversation. Just get out of my sight.”

The exchange with the teacher made her question her school’s system. “I told my teacher about it. It’s a very touchy topic to accuse a teacher of racism. I was like, hmmm maybe I should just let it go. However, I did confront him and I told him that I didn’t like his comment.”

Nomsa, raised by a father who is an engineer and a mother who is a tailor, lives in a suburb that neighbours a disenfranchised township. She says she often hears racially charged comments from white people about the blacks in the township next door.

“Black people can’t do this or that. Black people are like this ... I think people take racism lightly. I think what’s important is the principle behind racism because racist comments go to the mind.

“I think that, as black people, we’ve been brainwashed to the point where sometimes we do believe we’re inferior ... subconsciously.”

Behind her radiant smile is a deep sense of annoyance, especially when she talks about everyday racism, like white patrons being given preferential treatment at a restaurant.

“It’s our job as debaters to take note of such things in society and to try and fix them,” she says.

“During debating tournaments hosted and dominated by private schools, I often felt out of place and we, the underprivileged schools, were treated differently.”

The Constitution Hill Debating League final comprised only black pupils, because, as Nomsa explains, this league “targets underprivileged schools that don’t get exposure to debating the Constitution”.

Thabo wants free education

During the senior league final, I was struck by the arguments made by Thabo Ranamane, an 18-year-old matriculant from JE Malepe Senior Secondary School in Brakpan. Arguing that our Constitution should compel government to tackle abuses on the rest of the continent, Thabo would go on to take third place nationally and his team would lift the trophy.

Thabo lives in Tsakane on the East Rand with his mother and two sisters. For him, the Constitution represents his right to the education and freedom of expression that have shaped him. Debating has enshrined this.

“Without my rights, a lot of things in my life could have gone differently. My mum is unemployed, which allows me the right to receive a social grant, which has restored my dignity and made me actualise a normal life,” says the eloquent, lanky young man.

He took up debating in Grade 8, an activity that was managed by the pupils who couldn’t always sustain it.

“We joined this league last year and we didn’t win any rounds. But we didn’t give up,” says Thabo.

His team had to fund their trip to Constitution Hill themselves with the aid of a teacher who accompanied them.

No doubt JE Malepe will encourage the sport after this.

To prepare for debates, Thabo reads an array of books and has discussions with his teacher. Movies and video games also form part of his staple.

Social media helps keep him up to date on the news.

His career dreams include a degree in computer science followed by economics.

“I am interested in world economies and I believe in being a job creator instead of a job seeker. That’s what drives me.”

He believes he will really be able to develop his love of debating at university. Thabo is adamant that free education should become a reality at tertiary education institutions.

“In South Africa today, what’s unfair is that a black child has to work twice as hard to get into varsity,” he says.

The future looks brighter

Debating has clearly shaped Thabo’s world-view.

“The youth,” he says, “should engage in politics through debating.”

Next year, the bright star wants to join the Wits Debating Union and take part in international university championships. He also wants to give back to his school by making the sport more accessible.

About the power of today’s debate, Nomsa says: “Once we call out racism, we will be able to stop it. Racism should stop.”

For her, the Constitution represents a set of building blocks that can create a structure where she is able to engage with people from different backgrounds and races, finding her own place in society in the process.

“I feel like my voice is being heard,” she says.

5 cases that define our constitution

ARVs for all – 2002

1. In 1999, the Treatment Action Campaign took the government to court, demanding that Nevirapine be supplied to all pregnant women to halve the risk of their transmitting HIV to their babies. In an historic judgment, the court ordered government to make Nevirapine, or a suitable substitute, available at public clinics to pregnant mothers who sought it.

Government gave effect to the judgment. Large-scale provision of antiretrovirals (ARVs) began late in 2004, 30 months after the court’s ruling. Today South Africa has the largest publicly provided Aids treatment programme in the world.

Lesbian and gay equality project – 2006

2. This application sought to change the Marriage Act, which referred to “husband and wife”, by lobbying for marriage equality for same-sex couples. The lack of provision for such couples in the act amounted to the denial of equal protection under the law, as well as to the practice of unfair discrimination by the state because of sexual orientation.

The Constitutional Court held that common law and parts of the Marriage Act were inconsistent with the equality and dignity sections of the Constitution, to such an extent that they denied same-sex couples the status, entitlements and responsibilities accorded to heterosexual couples.

Evicting the poor – 2011

3. Since occupiers of a housing development may find themselves homeless after eviction by a landlord, they can now look to their municipalities for shelter.

Occupiers of a development in the Johannesburg city centre took legal action against the City of Johannesburg, maintaining that it was obliged to provide them with emergency housing if they were evicted.

The City of Johannesburg municipality appealed to the Constitutional Court, saying it was not obliged to provide emergency housing. It argued that its housing policy was good enough and that it had no resources to provide the housing in any event.

But the court held that the municipality was obliged to provide temporary emergency accommodation to the occupiers. It also rejected the argument that the National Housing Code did not empower or oblige the municipality to self-fund the provision of temporary emergency accommodation. The court also found that the City of Johannesburg’s housing policy was inconsistent with its housing obligation.

It was not reasonable, the court said, for the municipality to provide temporary accommodation to people relocated from hazardous buildings, but not to people who would be rendered homeless as a result of an eviction by a private owner.

Remedial acton of the public protector – 2016

4. Following President Jacob Zuma’s questioning of the powers of then Public Protector Thuli Madonsela with regard to whether her recommendations for remedial action were binding, the Constitutional Court considered Zuma’s case in terms of nonsecurity upgrades that were made to his private Nkandla residence.

The Public Protector had found that five features were not security related and state funds should not have been used for their construction. As a remedial action, she ordered that Zuma pay back reasonable costs for those features.

The Constitutional Court held that the power of the Public Protector to take appropriate remedial action has legal effect and is binding. Therefore, neither the president nor the National Assembly are entitled to respond to the remedial action taken as if it is of no consequence or has no effect. Instead, it can only be set aside through a proper judicial process.

The court also held that Zuma failed to “uphold, defend and respect” the Constitution, as a duty to repay the money was specifically imposed on him through the Public Protector’s constitutional power. It further declared the conduct of the president and the National Assembly inconsistent with their constitutional obligations.

Social grants – 2017

5. This judgment serves to protect the poor and destitute by ensuring that they are guaranteed delivery of their social assistance payment from government.

After a social grants contract between the SA Social Services Agency (Sassa) and provider Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) was declared invalid, Sassa was in no position to take over the payment and an urgent court application was made on behalf of the poor.

The court declared that Sassa and CPS were under a constitutional obligation to ensure that the payment of social grants to beneficiaries was not interrupted until another entity was able to do so. A failure to ensure social grants were paid infringed on the rights of grant beneficiaries to access social assistance, the court ruled.


What is greatest achievement of our Constitution? What do you think are important rulings made by the Constitutional Court? Would you change anything?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword CONSTITUTION and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

Read more on:    education  |  racism  |  constitution

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