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The South African Constition: Great Poetry or Great Legislation

RemofiloeWednesday 27th April 1994 remains entrenched in the memories of many South Africans because it was on this day that the first democratic elections were held. It is the day that signaled the beginning of a South Africa that embraced all those who called it home, a day that would be evidence of the will and determination of the South African people to move forward and create a democratic society governed by a government that is based on the will of the people and the rule of law.

Fast forward two years later to May 8th 1996 when the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa was adopted as the supreme law; a Constitution that is regarded as one of the best in the world, with a bill of rights that entrenches the rights of all South Africans and places a duty on the government to uphold, promote and protect these rights. A Constitution founded on human dignity, non-racialism and non-sexism, the achievement of equality as well as supremacy of the Constitution and rule of law. The adoption of the Constitution seemed to be the final step in ensuring that South Africa was on the right track to becoming the country its citizens had fought for and that the injustices suffered under the apartheid regime would never be repeated. However South Africa seems to have been derailed somewhere along the road and is being led by a president who has been found guilty of violating his oath of office by not protecting, upholding and defending the Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic1.

If the president is guilty of such an offence, how do we expect his government to honor their own oaths of office? The fish does rot from the head. The Constitution, through the bill of rights provides that the government should use its available resources to provide for the rights of South Africans, something it is failing to do. The right to access health services is being violated daily when patients are turned away from hospitals due to a lack of resources, with stories of doctors having to use their cellphones as lighting during surgery2 making news. The education system is an area of concern, schools go without text books, infrastructure and teachers. Unemployment stands at 26.7 per cent3 which is higher than what it was when apartheid ended in 1994 while the inequality gap is at 0.7 per cent4.

As a consequence of the constant human rights violations, South Africans are now using different outlets to voice their anger and frustrations. There were 218 protests across the country in 2014, the highest number since democratisation5. These protests impact negatively on the economy as they often mean that work is disrupted while on the international arena, they portray the country as an unstable foreign investment destination. The negative implications of the constant violation of the Constitution go beyond our borders and affects more than just the economy.

The credibility of South Africa as an ambassador for constitutional democracies and protection of the rule of law both on the African continent and for other developing countries is negatively affected. If the ambassador of constitutionalism and rule of law cannot live up to its own promises, then what authority does this ambassador have to advise others to follow in its footsteps? The example that is being indirectly set here is that, Constitutions are only adopted as a way to gain legitimacy-after that they become great poetry.

Our Constitution provides the South African citizen with the guidelines to hold their government accountable for their actions or lack thereof, as done by Section27, Treatment Action Campaign and Earthlife Africa Johannesburg. It is time the South African citizen made use of their Constitution and held their government accountable and demand their rights be respected.


1 TRANSCRIPT: Judgment of the Constitutional Court on #Nkandla, The Times 31 March 2016
2 BHEKISA Centre for Health Journalism, 23 January 2014
3 The Times 13 May 2016 29 October 2015
4 Gini coefficient measures inequality, where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is perfect inequality
5 News24

Ms Remofiloe Lobakeng holds a BA Hons in International Politics from UNISA and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD

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