We must give life to the Constitution
Over the past few weeks, the region has been shaken by the deaths of a number of activists and liberation heroes. Namibian Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, former president of Botswana Quett Ketumile Joni Masire and South Africa’s Lord Joel Joffe and Kesval “Kay” Moonsamy, and more recently Ntate Johnny Mekoa and Mme Emma Mashinini. They were all part of a generation of liberation stalwarts, serving their countries and people with distinction and dedication despite the gravest of odds. These deaths bring into sharp relief the closing of a chapter in Africa’s history.
As we move from the post-colonial and apartheid state we know that the liberation of our region from the yokes of poverty, inequality, racism and exclusion will come from a new generation. This new generation will stretch across the continent and be comprised of a vast range of actors, from grassroots activists to socially conscious businesspeople and forward-thinking politicians to daring journalists.
Like the generation before, the new generation of activists will also struggle against difficult odds. One such activist who paid the highest price was journalist Suna Venter. Threats, harassment, intimidation and attempted murder ultimately led to a heart condition and Venter’s death. She was an example of a principled and courageous activist. Her passing should encourage new forms of activism in response to the growing threats in our country.
In 1996, former president Nelson Mandela spoke at the Cape Town Press Club’s 21st anniversary and noted: “The media fraternity is more than just a critical observer of history in the making. At least in our young democracy, it contributes not merely by being a watchdog. It is a builder; it is an active participant.”
Madiba knew the importance of the press and that despite the problems in terms of transformation and reporting, “South Africa should put the freedom of its press and media at the top of its priorities as a democracy. None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to suggest even faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced. A bad free press is preferable to a technically good subservient press,” he stated in 2002.
Madiba’s words should guide us as we move into particularly turbulent times. Democracy is built on institutions, values and agencies that must be protected, cultivated and transformed, yet too often we use minor criticisms to write off important aspects required to build our democracy. Our goal should be to transform institutions without delegitimising and destroying them in the process.
A critical part of our democracy that is either perceived as the last bulwark of the country or gatekeeper of privilege is the Constitution. Following our board retreat last month, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, aware of the critiques of the Constitution, was mandated to underlie our work with a sense of “constitutionalism”. For the board, the Constitution needs to be given life through our actions and our ways of being and the underlying values of the Constitution should be regarded as beyond reproach. Thus, while we may argue about the particulars of the Constitution, the elevation of justice, freedom, equality and dignity should be the foundation on which we build our country.
A nation will always be in flux and will always require constant renegotiation, dialogue and compromise, but these fundamental values should be entrenched into the social norms of the country. A failure to recognise this will ultimately lead to the failure of the creation of a South African nation and real citizenship. Instead, as we have seen, a rise in political polarisation, marginalisation, anomie and alienation has become normalised.
I recently had the privilege of travelling to Argentina, a country with its own tormented history. In my interactions with many Argentinians I was able to reflect on the contradictions of our country. On the one hand, I was able to see the love and admiration that many have for South Africa and that in the imagination of many across the world, South Africa represents some of the universal ideals of justice, reconciliation and freedom; while on the other hand, I noted how we have degraded ourselves and have continually dropped the bar with regard to what we find acceptable, and I was unable to justify many actions and the route our country seems to be taking.
If we are to live the Constitution and give it life, if we are to heal the wounds of the past and build a society built on dignity and freedom, we must consider that many institutions, even those that we may consider problematic, must be protected and transformed. This should not be done through slashing and burning but rather through dialogue and conscious engagement with an acceptance of social justice as an underlying condition.
The price of their demise or weakening and of working towards values that are not aspirational but based on hatred will be a price too high to pay and an insult to the memories of the liberation heroes before us.
Hatang is CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation