Ronald Lamola | 25 years of constitutional democracy: We must interrogate those who attack the judiciary

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The Constitutional Court. (Ciaran Ryan, GroundUp)
The Constitutional Court. (Ciaran Ryan, GroundUp)

We must hold those among us accountable who have surrendered the will of the people and our constitutional democracy at the altar of personal gain and corruption, writes Ronald Lamola.

On Tuesday, we commemorated the 27th anniversary of Freedom Day. I contend that we cannot celebrate our freedom without having due regard to the democratic South Africa's birth certificate, our Constitution.

On 8 May 1996, President Cyril Ramaphosa in his capacity as the chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly stood in front of the nation in Parliament, where he characterised our Constitution as the nation's birth certificate.

He went on to say, "This Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, is a mirror of South African society. It reflects both the history from which we have emerged, and the values we now cherish – human dignity, equality and freedom.

"It proclaims to the world that we are a society committed to democracy, to the rule of law and the protection of human rights.

"It proclaims to all South Africans, the landless, the homeless, the women, the workers and the children of this country that their basic needs and aspirations matter enough to be included in the country's Constitution.

"It celebrates the richness of the diversity of cultures, religions and beliefs of South Africans, and affirms that all belong as equals in our one nation.

"It commits the state to respecting, to protecting, promoting and to fulfilling the rights in the Bill of Rights and acknowledges that it is not enough for the government to simply refrain from violating people's rights."

Foundation of society

These wise words by President Ramaphosa are as important today as they were 25 years ago. Our Constitution forms the foundation of the society we want to be.

Equally, our forebears also envisioned a free and democratic South Africa centred on constitutionalism and the regeneration of Africa.

In April 1906, one of the founding members of the African National Congress, Pixley Ka Isaka Seme, addressing Columbia University in New York, said the following: 

The brightest day is rising upon Africa. Yes, the regeneration of Africa belongs to this new and powerful period. By this term, regeneration, I wish to be understood to mean the entrance of a new life, embracing the diverse phases of a higher, complex existence. The regeneration of Africa means that a new unique civilisation is soon to be added to the world.

On this journey of democracy, we hold no illusions that the work required to reconstruct and build a nation that is united in its diversity and address deep socio-economic equality need radical impetus.

As we celebrate our 25th year of constitutionalism, we are increasingly coming to terms with the reality that society does not consist merely of the law or the state. It also has a more informal aspect, comprised of its cultural institutions, conventions, moral rules and moral sanctions. For society to fully flourish, it must be just in its informal as well as its formal aspects.

In other words, for us to give proper effect to our constitutional promises, we must ensure that the Constitution permeates all spheres of society. As we celebrated Freedom Day, it was abundantly clear that the Constitution was not entrenched in all sectors of society. Put differently, our economy is yet to be transformed, and none of us can claim it is broadly representative of our diverse nation.

READ | Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Attacks on our constitutional democracy: 4 strategies that are being used

We must be equally frank and hold those among us accountable who have surrendered the will of the people and our constitutional democracy at the altar of personal gain and corruption. One cannot serve the will of the people and line your pockets at the same time. This we have seen recently where the personal gains of those entrusted with leadership positions in various levels succeeded at the expense of state institutions. 

Ultimately, our state institutions lost the capacity to make good on the promises of the Constitution.

It is precisely this behaviour that former president Thabo Mbeki warned about on occasion to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution. He said:

Nowhere does the Constitution we celebrate provide that those who serve in government are permitted to abuse their power to undermine the objective to secure the well-being of the people of the Republic. Nowhere does it say that any public representative or official serves in any organ of state in order to misuse state power to enrich themselves or acquire any benefits that would otherwise not be due to them according to law.

Nonetheless, during this challenging period in our new democracy, our birth certificate came to define who we indeed are. Decades from today, future generations will affirm that our judiciary stood as a last line of defence when our democracy was presented at the altar of corruption.

As a nation, we need to carefully interrogate those among us who attack the judiciary when called upon to respond to charges of corruption preferred against them by law enforcement agencies. Are we not confronted with a new form of adventurism, where some among us believe they can try to overthrow the state or steal from the state with absolute impunity? Are these not the same people who do not want to face the consequences for their wrongdoings? Are they not trying to discredit and delegitimise state institutions and even trying to turn society at large against the state because they have been caught? We must interrogate these individuals closely and ascertain whether they are not the same individuals who may have derailed our democratic journey.

READ | Serjeant at the Bar: The ANC needs to show that it is committed to the Constitution

Let South Africans not be sidetracked by those who have refused the wise counsel of Mme Charlotte Maxeke, who said let us not be distracted by those who have refused to "kill that spirit of self."

We must reassert the core of our nation's values

As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of our Constitution, the supreme law of the country, we must continue to reassert the core of our nation's values without fear or favour. Our Constitution must continue to breathe life into our freedoms in a tangible manner. Now more than ever, constitutionalism must be our actual lived experience.

This year, in which our Constitution marks a quarter of a century in our lives, we will call upon sectors of society to locate themselves in it and call on our collective consciousness to assess how to entrench it in our communities. Constitutionalism must be the lived experience of the LGBTQI+ community.

We all must preserve the dignity and lives of all our citizens despite their sexual orientation. As we celebrated Freedom Day, we did so with the reality that Lonwabo Jack and Andile "Lulu" Ntuthela were not afforded the right to equality.

We hope that the current litigation process in the Constitutional Court that affects the implementation of the Hate Crimes Bill will be resolved within a reasonable period to enable us to have legal certainty on some of its provisions. Despite this, South Africans must live in a society where consciousness overrides compliance with the law.

We should also remind our friends and foes beyond our shores that our constitutional ethos transcends borders.

We will confront racism here and abroad; human rights know no sovereignty; to this end, we will pursue justice where injustice prevails.

In remembrance of the heroines and heroes of our people who lost their lives in the fight for freedom and democracy in South Africa, let all South Africans recommit themselves to the course of constitutionalism. Let constitutionalism reign, let freedom live and may God bless South Africa and her people.

- Ronald Lamola is the minister of justice and correctional services.

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