New philanthropic fund to strengthen democracy

South Africa has made great progress in two decades of democracy. Over my 15-year term as a judge for the Constitutional Court, I saw how the country’s legal commitment to equality and dignity could positively affect the lives of previously marginalised communities and citizens.

Our Constitution is hailed as one of the most progressive in the world. Significant advances have been made, but the challenges facing us are numerous – among them extreme income inequality, high crime, and the social and economic dislocation of unemployment.

And many of the constitutional commitments to basic services such as education and healthcare have not been met as yet.

We chose to live by values personified and championed by former president Nelson Mandela. These principles must be maintained and promoted along with our commitment to the rule of law and the health of our constitutional institutions.

To stand still is to fall back, and our long-term stability and the full realisation of the rights promised under the Constitution depend on continued progress toward these goals.

Properly interpreted, applied and enforced, the Constitution is for all South Africans and those who live here. But enforcing equality and dignity cannot start with or end with a case in a court. It also requires a strong and innovative civil society rooted in the communities it serves to advance constitutionalism with approaches from litigation to advocacy, research, movement building, capacity building and others.

This requires support and resources, over and above the fantastic local efforts to support social justice work in South Africa, often in partnership with the state and the private sector. Yet, today, fewer financial resources are available to fund civil society.

For this reason, and to mark 20 years of democracy, a philanthropic Fund for Promoting and Advancing Constitutionalism in South Africa is being established by three contributing foundations with decades of experience in grant-making for human rights and governance here: the Open Society Foundations, the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Ford Foundation. I will serve as the inaugural chair of a three-member independent panel that will review applications and make grants.

Over the next 10 years, we will provide general support to civil society organisations that work to promote constitutionalism and a democratic, open society. We will also ensure that over time we will build a new layer of leaders, focusing on racial and gender transformation.

This new fund will have a vital role to play, working alongside the local and international philanthropic community. It must be part of a larger collective effort to expand democracy – and not be seen as a “silver bullet” solution. The intention is to reward innovative thinking as well as efforts that will be sustainable in the long term. We hope to find new entrants over the next few years, and will always support excellence where it already exists.

We should all have faith in the Constitution’s power to transform lives and that our diligence in furthering its development will pay rich dividends in our democratic future.

Yvonne Mokgoro is a former Constitutional Court justice and the chairperson of the selection panel for the Fund for Promoting and Advancing Constitutionalism in South Africa.

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