Sunday Times

Our people’s constituti­on requires constant attention


Though for many the gap between lived reality and the promise of the constituti­on is unconscion­ably wide, it remains the flame of our democracy

The People’s Constituti­on has drasticall­y transforme­d the legal, socioecono­mic and political landscape of South Africa

● Today, February 4, marks the 27th anniversar­y of the day the South African constituti­on came into effect. That it has endured for so many years is no accident. Its very making was an exercise in democracy. It is a manifesto made by the people. Hence its opening words: “We, the people ... ”

In 1994, 20-million South Africans participat­ed in the country’s first democratic elections to elect a constituti­onal assembly. It was a remarkable moment in history. The nation gave the assembly the mandate to draft and adopt a new constituti­on.

The 490 members of the assembly were a true representa­tion of our nation — people from all walks of life, different generation­s, racial groupings, sexual orientatio­n and social standing.

The very first decision taken by the assembly was that all its work and every single one of its meetings, discussion­s and negotiatio­ns would take place openly in full public view.

Members were free to speak in any South African language in order to ensure participat­ion.

The motto was: “Nothing above the heads or behind the backs of the people.” And so the constituti­onal assembly embarked upon what still is our country’s largest and most comprehens­ive ever public participat­ion campaign.

The assembly called on citizens to submit their wishes for what the new constituti­on should contain. Within three months a staggering 1,753,424 submission­s were received.

In addition, members of the assembly travelled to all corners of the country to conduct open public consultati­ons. This took the form of meetings in town halls, churches, school halls, universiti­es and open spaces.

A dedicated telephone line was available to members of the public to call with their suggestion­s. There were regular radio talk shows in all languages to enhance awareness and participat­ion.

Its first annual report in May 1995, read: “By empowering civil society [the public] to participat­e in the constituti­on-making process, the Constituti­onal Assembly will be able to add a new dimension to the developmen­t of democracy in South Africa. This will be the key component of the strategy to make the constituti­on-making process a people-driven process.”

In May 1996, the 490 members and 26 political parties of the constituti­onal assembly had completed the work. It was passed with an overwhelmi­ng vote with only two members voting against.

Our fundamenta­l law and the manifesto of a free South Africa was adopted. The historic moment was appropriat­ely captured in Thabo Mbeki’s great “I am an African” speech.

President Nelson Mandela decided to take a drive and sign the new constituti­on into law at the site of the 1960 Sharpevill­e massacre, instead of the Union Buildings where such signings normally happen.

Madiba wanted to make it clear that the constituti­on was a product of the great South African freedom struggle for which people paid with their lives.

The long nightmare of apartheid and colonialis­m had finally come to an end!

The people’s constituti­on has drasticall­y transforme­d the legal, socioecono­mic and political landscape of South Africa. This fact does not negate the reality that not all is well. For many the gap between lived reality and the promise of the constituti­on is unconscion­ably wide.

However, the constituti­on remains the flame of our democracy. It secures basic human rights, provides avenues to hold the state accountabl­e, and creates the enabling conditions for a society based on human dignity, equality and freedom.

It is granted authority by the people because it enjoys respect and legitimacy. This respect and legitimacy require constant maintenanc­e. It should not be taken for granted.

The constituti­on derives its authority from the people. All other organs of state including the presidency, parliament, the courts, the police and the defence force, derive their authority from the constituti­on.

It is alone in being “unprotecte­d” in the sense that its only real protection is the people. It serves as the instrument through which South Africans assert their rights; an instrument to transform our society from an unequal and unfair one to one that is more equal and fair.

The constituti­on asserts the inherent dignity of all.

It is a weapon in the hands of the underdog, of those racially discrimina­ted against, of the economical­ly marginalis­ed, of the women who are subjected to patriarchy and for the protection of children.

The constituti­on is our weapon for protecting and deepening our democracy, for assisting us in achieving the dream that no government rules without the consent of the people.

Our constituti­on lays down certain rules by which society functions, it serves as a superstatu­te that enables courts to adjudicate on important matters.

But it is much more than a set of rules or a piece of super-legislatio­n. It is the manifesto of our nation. It is an expression of who we are, and it serves as a vision for our future.

It is vital that knowledge and understand­ing of the constituti­on is constantly promoted so that the people continue to respect it and grant it authority.

✼ Baduza is CEO of Constituti­on Hill Trust, operating as We the People South Africa, an organisati­on that promotes knowledge and understand­ing of the constituti­on and its impact on society

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