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Why I love the (South African) Constitution

Posted on February 24, 2012

So, in between times, when the boss is taking time out I get to go through the newspapers slowly piling up in the corner of the office, keeping an eye open for any opportunities to keep us both in the money. And the word that seems to spring out at me from every page is 'constitution' as in: 'Zuma wants Constitutional Court powers reviewed', 'Bill is unconstitutional', 'the right constitution', 'In love with SA's Constitution' and 'Happy 15th birthday, Constitution'.

It seems that Zuma and his lot want to check up on what the Constitutional Court's doing - well wouldn't you if you were president and you keep being called there to explain yourself? But it does seem that the waters are getting a bit muddied - isn't the court supposed to be independent? If so, why does it feel as if the politicians are checking up on it? Is it because some of their decisions are not to their liking? Hmmm... let's not go too far down that road.

Then it seems that even though parliament approved the Protection of State Information Bill, and sent it off to the National Council of Provinces, there are still some people who say that the bill is unconstitutional. Basically the argument is that the constitution gives everyone the right to freedom of expression and access to information, but the Info Bill gives government the right to keep some things secret! But that's another very long argument and my head's too tired to get into all that right now.

So, after all the doom and gloom it was a surprise to see some of the other headlines, 'The right constitution', which says that, 'South Africa's constitution is a model for nations across the word. It gives the world a glimpse of what a country can become when people take their own destiny in hand and focus on the interests of everyone, not just their own.'

Then a headline that really grabbed my fancy: 'In love with SA's Constitution'. Seems that a US Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was given lot of flak when she said that Egypt should use our constitution as a model, rather than theirs, because it 'embraces basic human rights [and] an independent judiciary'. Tlali Tlali, spokesperson for the Department of Justice, was very chuffed, boasting to the media that, 'South Africa has lent its services based on our history to a number of other countries in the past, and ours is one of the most progressive constitutions in the world - a beacon for emerging democracies.' Nice to know that all is not better in the land of the Big Mac!

But what really made me stop and think was the double-page spread saying, 'Happy 15th birthday Constitution'. Now I know we celebrate every anniversary under the sun in this country - seems like every day there's another invitation to an annual lecture or party of some kind. But this media Monisoing Africa's 'We, the people' campaign has adverts which give out a lot of useful information: did you know that the constitution is the 'supreme law of the land', and that the Bill of Rights deals with the rights to equality, human dignity, life and privacy, amongst others, as well as the freedoms of religion and expression?

'We, the people' is asking us to tell the world why we love our constitution - by SMS (+27 78 949 3735), on MIXit (>TradePost>We The People), Facebook (wethepeople_za), Twitter (@wethepeople_za) and on their website .

So why do I love the constitution? Firstly, because I can remember back in the day, in 1996, when I was at high school and we all got free copies of the constitution. We also all got a free paper flag but I don't think it was on the same day. Anyway, we were given small solid little book, a bit like a thick hymn book or a thin Bible, and the principal said, 'keep this document in your pocket - it's your pass to a better life' and then she gave us a long lecture about the dompas (pass books) and about how if you had one it could keep you safe. Seriously! Then she told us to be sure to memorise the Bill of Rights (Chapter 2) so that no one could ever discriminate against us for any reason whatsoever. So I love the constitution because it reminds me of a time when we felt as if the sky was the limit, as if the riches of the world were within our grasp and we all had high hopes for a better world. A time before everything crashed down into service delivery protests, fat cat politicians in fancy cars sleeping in fancy hotels, and everyone paying off everyone else to get rich.

Secondly, because I was a good student, I loved history, even in school. I loved to hear about the 50s and the times when the guys looked sharp and marched for freedom. That time before the shootings and the bombs and the teargas and the police with their dogs. I loved to read about the Freedom Charter and all those people who came together to say what they wanted, and what they didn't, and I loved to talk to my uncles about those days and how they went off in their volunteer uniforms to get people to talk about freedom. So, when I read the Bill of Rights I thought, 'At last, here it is, in black and white, with a government stamp on it!'
Thirdly, I love the constitution because it isn't just a wish list. It acknowledges the injustices of the past and puts forward a plan for the future. Right up front, in the Preamble, it says quite clearly that the constitution must 'heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights'. It's not about punishing the haves or getting equal, it's about making a better world for everyone. But, there are some big sticks hiding in the back to make sure that this all happens: the Public Protector, the South African Human Rights Commission, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities - which the boss insists on calling the-commission-with-the-very-long-name, the Commission for Gender equality, the Auditor General, the Electoral Commission and the Independent Authority to Regulate Broadcasting.

And finally, another reason to love the constitution is because it talks about 'we', not us and them. Just like the Freedom Charter, the opening words are, 'We, the people of South Africa'. This makes me feel good. The constitution makes me feel as if, despite our divided history and the huge gaps between rich and poor, we are one nation, with a shared vision for the future, and a roadmap to keep us on the right track.

Mak (from Makhado) works in the heritage sector and is an occasional correspondent for the Archival Platform. He writes in his private capacity.