OPINION | Freedom Day lockdown: We can no longer scratch at surface of poverty, inequality

Billboard urging South Africans to stay at home during the lockdown.
Billboard urging South Africans to stay at home during the lockdown.
PHOTO: Gallo Images

The irony of writing about Freedom Day while being locked up at home does not escape me, writes Elmien du Plessis.


The coronavirus lockdown has been manageable. I have a salaried job at the university, my husband can work from home, my children can continue to school at home. We are able to buy enough food to last us more than a week or so, reducing the number of times we have to leave the house, and reducing the risk of getting infected (or arrested). We have not gone hungry, and it is not an immediate fear.

It doesn't mean I don't feel the weight of the world or that I am not worried about my father in frail care or that I don't hold my children extra long at night to keep the space for their fears and anxieties.

It does mean that I have less things to worry about than most of my fellow South Africans. As someone tweeted this week: "We are all in the same storm, but not in the same boat".

This while we have a world-class Constitution, based on equality, human dignity and freedom. A Constitution that provides us with the mechanisms to ensure that these values can be pursued (and often are).

The pandemic became a magnifier, showing where the Constitution falls short of being the living document that should guide our actions, including government action. The weakness of our democracy is the naked emperor, prancing around for all to see.

The task team speaks of "small fires" of outbreaks, but alongside Covid-19, years of inequality and growing poverty is the volcano about to erupt. Years of not effectively addressing the issues, years of ignoring spatial inequality and a mounting housing crisis means that we are now trying to stop a volcano with a hosepipe.

We can blame it on whatever we want. But introspection will require that we ask what we, as ordinary citizens, did during the past 26 years to give effect to the Constitution, to live its values in our everyday lives? The Constitution itself is just paper and text, and it is only by interacting with the text, living its values in relation to other citizens that it comes alive.

Democracy is more than just a voting exercise

A Constitutional democracy cannot exist without we, the people.

Up to now you might think I see little future for South Africa. The opposite is true. But I see the future of democracy in we, the people. The people who rise up in ordinary life, showing that democracy is more than just a voting exercise every five years. It is practicing democracy, where actions need not be spectacular to be profound.

It is the people of Xolobeni who stand up for the right to say "no!", to insist that they be included in the decision-making pertaining to their resources.

It is Mr Gongqose and others refusing to accept that their way of living, their rights, be classified a crime.

It is the Land Access Movement telling the court that if government does not consult widely in making legislation, the legislation is unconstitutional. It is the Constitutional Court that confirms it.

It is the people of District Six insisting that the state deliver on its promise.

It is sitting in the Constitutional Court with some of the 84 residents from a building in the nearby Berea, asserting their Constitutional rights.

It is the public interest lawyers foregoing private practice incomes to ensure that people's rights are recognised. It is the lawyers stopping police from acting unlawfully, and getting arrested.

It is the past month of people rising up, stepping up, and providing food to ensure that with the state struggling to fulfill its duty to food security, people don't die of hunger.

Our never-to-be-repeated past still lingers

It is every teacher sitting with their own challenges during the lockdown, finding ways to ensure that children's right to education is fulfilled.

It is journalists ensuring that the stories get told, that government is held accountable, often at a great personal cost.

Twenty-six years ago, lines of people snaked through communities to participate in the first democratic elections. To constitutionally establish a "we, the people of South Africa".

Earlier this week, I received an email from a colleague who reflected that he thought solitary confinement would prepare him for the lockdown, and it didn't. It struck me just how intimately connected the memories of a never-to-be-repeated past still lingers among us. The high price that was paid for this constitutional democracy, built on hopes for a better life for all.

We have come far in 26 years, not due to some spectacular miracle, but because ordinary citizens stood up, did the work.

And when Covid-19 subsides and we pick up the pieces, when we witness the devastating effect it had on people living in poverty, we, the people, need to address this poverty and inequality with the seriousness it deserves, also ensuring that deep change takes place. We can no longer just scratch at the surface.

Because the legitimacy of the Constitution is not only dependent on successful elections, of which the most profound one was held on this day 26 years ago. It is dependent on the Constitution being a living document, lived by us. And in that, we all have a responsibility.

 - Elmien du Plessis is an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at the North West University

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