Something out of nothing

Somewhere there is a photograph of Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer taking a break during the constitutional negotiations, seemingly relaxed. The picture belies the mammoth task with which they were engaged. This was essentially a task to make something out of nothing.
For the Constitution represents South Africa’s dual attempts to overcome its past and deal with its present.

The Constitution bears testimony to the optimism of those early years of our democracy. For the constitutional cornerstones are equality and dignity for citizens, the fundamental transformation of society and transparent and accountable government.

So, 10 years after the adoption of the Constitution, how far have we come in creating a decent society that ensures dignity and equality for all who live in it?

South Africa has made tremendous progress as regards formal equality. Citizens all enjoy the vote and South Africa, has despite its violent past, been able to hold successive elections. In the main, there is a full opportunity for political expression. The Constitution remains the holder and protector of these civil and political rights. As a result, South Africans have become almost blasé about their ability to “do elections”. But South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, now ahead of Brazil. In addition, South Africa’s fundamental inequalities still remain largely characterised by race.

Again, progress has been made as regards socio-economic delivery, and for millions life post-1994 has improved significantly on the basis of the government’s interventions.

However, 10 years on, it is clear that much more than the Constitution is needed in the battle against poverty and inequality. The golden thread that runs through the recent African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) draft country self-assessment report confirms this. Its overwhelming finding is that South Africa has done exceptionally well in creating a legal framework for democracy but the gap between law and implementation remains the greatest challenge to making rights real and reducing inequality.

Important as substantive equality is, it is also evident that the drafters of the Constitution envisaged that it be about more than this.

At its very heart the Constitution sets out the core values of our society. As President Thabo Mbeki himself said in a joint sitting of Parliament earlier this week, South Africa faces a continuing struggle to embed the dignity and respect central to ubuntu that underpins the Constitution. “Freedom,” he went on to say, “ought not to translate into a licence to compromise the rights of others and nor does it give those elected the licence to abuse power and enrich themselves at the expense of citizens.”

Amen to that. These days Mbeki repeats this message at virtually every public meeting he addresses. As indeed he should. In the second decade of democracy the contaminating influence of money on the political process has resulted in a slew of allegations of corruption: Oilgate, Travelgate, the arms deal and the dramatic sacking of the former deputy president following the Schabir Shaik case.

An exacerbating factor has been that South Africa has no regulation of private funding to political parties, creating plenty of opportunity for unscrupulous donors to buy influence.

The recent auditor general’s report on weak levels of compliance with the private asset disclosure by public servants and allegations that the judge president of the Cape was on a monthly retainer for a leading asset management company are signs of a counter- culture of greed and corruption. While progress has been made, the implementation of South Africa’s generally sound anti-corruption framework remains weak.

Our collective response appears often not to be outrage but resignation. There can be no room for complacency.

It is only by asserting rights and assuming responsibilities that the values of the Constitution will live and prosper. As Nelson Mandela said 10 years ago, this will require our collective stamina.

Judith February

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