ANC pulls out of constitutional debate

The African National Congress (ANC) on Wednesday pulled out of a public debate on the protection and defence of the Constitution as it did not see the value of discussing subjects that did not pose “key institutional, policy and political challenges”.

The debate, hosted by the Helen Suzman Foundation, was attended by representatives of Congress of the People (Cope), the Democratic Alliance, the Independent Democrats, the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and academics.

Notifying the foundation of the ANC’s decision not to participate, spokesperson Jessie Duarte wrote that if one looked “beyond the rhetoric, objectively” there was no threat to the country’s constitutional order or to the rule of law.

“Certainly, we should all stand ready to protect and defend our Constitution.

“But to suggest, as this debate would, that the Constitution is somehow imperilled is to misdirect our attention and our energies,” Duarte wrote in a letter to the foundation on Wednesday.

“The more relevant question as regards the Constitution is whether we have made sufficient progress towards realising the socio-economic rights contained in chapter two.

“What progress have we made since 1996 in realising the right of all South Africans to housing, healthcare, food, water, social security and education?

“That, we would submit, is the debate we should be having.”

Reading out the ANC’s letter at the debate in Rosebank on Wednesday afternoon, Helen Suzman Foundation director Raenette Taljaard said it was certainly regrettable that the party was not present.

‘In a democracy everything is up for debate’
University of Johannesburg Professor Steven Friedman said the “uniquely and delightfully” South African quality about current debates around the Constitution was that everyone was trying to defend the Constitution but no one could agree on what they were actually defending.

He said there was nothing wrong with testing the Constitution, but it would only remain intact if it had the support of all South Africans.

“In a democracy everything is up for debate,” he said.

“There is nothing disturbing about the Constitution or constitutionalism being tested. We are going to be in a situation in which rules limit the power of politicians, which will be seen as unreasonable to the politicians.

“Whether we get through that with the principles intact depends on whether we understand what is necessary to defend, protect and strengthen the Constitution.”

Friedman said the Constitution was not a way of limiting democracy, but was a way of promoting democracy.

“All these rules are there not to stop democratic participation but to enable democratic participation”.

He said, however, the Constitution would only become a living and protected document when a broad constituency was built for whom the rights it offered were part of their daily lived reality.

“A democratic constitution can only survive to the extent that a constituency is built up to support it.”

At the moment, Friedman said, only about one-third of South Africans were involved in a vigorous democracy and the rest, without access to rights, were not involved in very much democracy at all.

Other speakers at the debate echoed Friedman’s call for broad access to the Constitution.

South African Institute for Race Relations president Sipho Seepe said: “Democracy is safe when the citizens are eternally vigilant.”

UDM head Bantu Holomisa said a democracy was about giving power to people and not politicians.

“For democracy to be legitimate, people need to have the certainty that they can hold politicians who disappoint or fail them to account.

University of Cape Town lecturer Zwelethu Jolobe said people needed to have access to the law to be able to protect the Constitution.

“[It is] citizens, through access to legal systems and courts, who are the defenders of the Constitution and protectors of constitutionalism.”

Jolobe said the “purges” of premiers and the recall of former president Thabo Mbeki, while they might sometimes be considered unpopular decisions, were consistent with the Constitution.

He said a cause for concern was the way in which the ANC had reacted to the establishment of Cope.

He said there were examples of “hate speech” against Cope coming out of the ANC Youth League, as well as intimidation and disruption of the party’s meetings.

Jolobe said this type of behaviour could be seen to violate rights to dignity and the freedom of association and assembly.

Cope party member Smuts Ngonyama said South Africa had been exposed to “totally intolerant” behaviour such as the calling of Cope members cockroaches and baboons.

He said Cope wanted to fight against blind loyalty, which it considered very dangerous.

“[Blind loyalty is] loyalty which does not have a consciousness, loyalty which does not listen,” said Ngonyama.

“Germany’s Nazism, and the Holocaust, was because of blind loyalty. The situation in Rwanda was because of blind loyalty.

“Absolute power can corrupt absolutely,” he said.—Sapa

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