RECOGNISING THE LOST ONES:
The Bill of Rights
and our Constitution can’t be seen as instruments to revive or discreetly maintain
THE TURKISH Nobel Laureate in literature – Orhan Pamuk, in possibly his most brilliant novel, Museum of Innocence – begins with a vivid extract from Calák Salig’s notebook: “These were innocent people, so innocent that they thought poverty a crime that wealth would allow them to forget.”
What’s left unsaid is that the pain of the poor wouldn’t register in the collective gini coefficient, that extraordinary method invented by economists to obscure real levels of poverty, a level in which South Africa still looms very highly. So it seems to me pain and poverty are inextricably bound together but it’s sad such recognition has failed to reach the minds of many who enjoy the privilege of wealth, without the moral commitment that often justifies excessive wealth.
A few days spent in the relative comfort of a hospital didn’t work the wonders I had hoped for, as I have had a comprehensive personal insight now into pain over the past month. Since I’ve been an asthmatic since the age of three I’d thought I would’ve been immune to the kind of debilitating pain, both in its extent and intensity. Out of that excruciating experience I’ve begun to give some thought to what those less fortunate than I have been through.
I recall another insight from a film by the great Spanish film-maker Luis Bunuel, in one of his early films, Los Olvidados. The lost ones were the street children of Mexico City. Hunger and desperation drive our little hero to an uneasy sleep. In this particular scene, suddenly a large leg of lamb comes down from the sky towards him. As he’s about to grasp it, a devil – presumably representing the Mexican social system – grabs it from him.
There are millions of such lost ones in the world, whose anonymity is assiduously guarded by a police force, a vast bureaucracy and an unfeeling power system. No one really cares for them, church or civil society, whatever they may say in public. For me, that lack of recognition of the lost ones violates one of the “foundation values” of SA’s Constitution, a provision that seeks to assimilate human dignity with the achievement of equality and the strengthening of human rights and freedom.
If one looks at the case load of the Constitutional Court, it will be become even clearer that the right to dignity is the central core element of our Constitution. The court has the duty to declare as incompatible those rights incompatible to the Constitution and it has to enlarge on the right to privacy, dramatically, which already exists in the Constitution.
What we should try to recover, as I recover, is that those who care for our freedom don’t identify only rights for a particular language or racial group or about constitutional provisions in a sectarian manner. The Bill of Rights and our Constitution can’t be seen as instruments to revive or discreetly maintain former privileges. I think of such obnoxious attempts by the City Council, where I live, to provide lavatories for the poorest of the poor. Well and good, you might say. No. The real humiliation and insulting in the extreme of the unthinking public servants and the opportunistic politicians who don’t consider it to be heartless to the lavatory “owner” to provide ceilings and floors and walls, for this “building” which doesn’t only contravene our Constitution but every goal of the Millennium Declaration.
You may have seen photographs of elderly fellow South Africans using those “facilities” wrapped in blankets. These lavatories violate the right to dignity and equality. Sad, though, that this can happen almost two decades after the adoption of our highly-praised Constitution.
It seems that my old law tutor at the London School of Economics was right when he criticised some of my upper class English fellow students for referring to the glory of English common law. In fact, abuse of a charter of human rights turns judge-made law into an instrument of tyranny. However, ordinary people continue to need to struggle to translate to make “a book of rights” into a document of real rights.