South Africa

Know your Constitution: an 18-year-old’s journey of Constitutional discovery

By Mikhail Hendricks 12 December 2013

This article is written from the perspective of an 18-year-old who just matriculated from The Cape Academy for Mathematics, Science and Technology in Cape Town, South Africa. Raised by his grandparents in the Mitchell’s Plain township in the Cape Flats area of Cape Town, Mikhail Hendricks explains the role that constitutional literacy has played thus far in his life. He tells his personal story of Constitutional discovery and explains why he supports The Know Your Constitution Campaign. He is young, optimistic for the future and most importantly, proudly South African.

I come from the Mitchell’s Plain community in Cape Town, where the term ‘law’ was synonymous with gangsterism and was interchangeably used to refer to the police or ‘die Boere’. People held a view of the law in which it was believed that the law is only for people with money. I remember that all we learnt of the Constitution during my primary school days was that it was one of the best in the world. For a very long time, whenever the Constitution was brought up in the media or in conversation, my mind could only recall that is one of the best.

A few years later, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the colourful history behind this exceptional document and was given a wonderful opportunity to explore and apply the principles found within. In retrospect, I came to realise that the views held by my grandparents, my community and many other communities about the law were ultimately the product of the unjust laws of that time. Due to the revolutionary strides we as a country have made in changing the laws that govern us, I now have a different view on things. Throughout this process, I have learned so much of our country’s recent history and have since made a personal pledge to always observe and protect all that our Constitution stands for.

My journey of Constitutional discovery started at the end of 2011, after I read an article in the local community newspaper about the National High schools Moot Court Competition (NHSMCC). The article mentioned that the inaugural competition in 2010 had proven to be a great success and that it would become an annual competition. I remember thinking I would do very well in a competition like that. I made contact with the necessary persons to gather information about the competition so I could prepare a presentation for my principal. I attended the Cape Academy for Mathematics, Science and Technology then and a competition that focuses on the law deviated from the Academy’s primary focus of educating the future scientists and engineers of our country. This obstacle was easily overcome, as my principal needed no persuasion in realising the benefit of exposure to the Constitution and the laws of our land.

A moot court is a fictional court hearing where the competitors prepare a legal case, and then playing the role of lawyers, present their case to a panel of judges. Moot court competitions are popular in law schools, but this competition is for South African high school students and focuses on the South African Constitution. Any high school in the country, rich or poor, is invited to enter a team of two learners to participate in the first round. The teams must write and submit two essays (heads of arguments) for both sides of the case.

A panel reviews the essays and chooses the top nine schools per province and promotes them to the second round, which is an oral round held at magistrates’ courts across all nine provinces. From there, the top four teams in each province are selected to compete in the semi-final rounds. The top two teams then compete in the final round at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg before a panel of Constitutional Court judges.

I personally enjoyed the second round of the competition, as we got to put on robes and argue our cases in a real court of law. It was particularly memorable for me as my grandmother passed away a week before the provincial rounds. I dedicated my performance in the competition to her and all the sacrifices she made for me to get to that point. My partner and I went on to represent the Western Cape at the semi-final rounds in Pretoria. This was my first visit to our country’s administrative capital and it was here that I felt like a tourist in my own country. We were taken on a tour of the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg and Freedom Park in Pretoria.

The Apartheid museum experience was most emotional, as the suffering our people had to endure came to life for me. We were also given an extensive tour of our Constitutional Court. I was in awe of the history behind Constitutional Hill and my fondest memory of the building is of the skew pillars famously named after the late Chief Justice Pius Langa. It is said that Justice Langa didn’t approve of the skew pillars, as to many it might look as if it was an architectural error. Justice Langa later came to enjoy the pillars, which are now affectionately named the “Pius Pillars”. The Court also boasts a very impressive number of historical artefacts and significant works of art that, due to my family’s lack of resources, I never otherwise would have had a chance to experience at this point in my life. Based on this experience, I am highly supportive of the work of the competition organisers and am now committed to further their cause, so that more young South Africans can be given such opportunity.

In our research for the moot court case, we learnt of the CODESA negotiations and the works of the Constitutional Assembly. This research made me ask myself why these pinnacle events of our recent history were not shared with us in school. My partner and I immersed ourselves in this flood of history and absorbed as much as we could. I remember there were times when I realised how close we as nation came to experiencing a civil war and it gave me goose bumps. It was this experience that made me realise as a young South African, how grateful I must be to live in this constitutional democracy. And I am well aware that we are not in a perfect state.

It is at times challenging to have and maintain hope in our country that is plagued with endemic corruption, grotesque mismanagement of public funds, high statistics of serious crimes (especially against women and children) and from knowing our history, what seems on so many levels to be a dream deferred. For me, though, the Constitution contains the promissory message of a non-racist, non-sexist and just democratic society that works for us all. It is this message of hope of a perfect democratic republic that is found within the Constitution, which keeps my hopes alive for a better South Africa.

The ‘fictional’ case we dealt with in the competition focused on child-headed households. We soon came to realise that there was nothing fictitious regarding the situation, as there are many child-headed households in our country. While writing the essays, I could see the transformative role the Constitution plays in our society. If it were not for the special rights children have in the Constitution, they would have been subjected only to a system that lacks empathy, where their emotional wellbeing would have been completely disregarded.

It is my belief that if we make young South Africans more aware of how the Constitution works, what it gives them and expects of them, we will have more proud South Africans and young people who will not choose to be indifferent to the struggles of their fellow individuals and communities. They will want to work to make our country a better place for all. I say this from my own experiences, as I recently finished Matric and plan on studying law at Stellenbosch University on full bursary. On completion of my studies, it is my plan to use the Constitution to help fight the injustices in our society. Truth be told, if I had not received opportunities to learn more about our Constitution from the Constitutional Literacy and Service Initiative (CLASI) and the organisers of the NHSMCC, and been given the bursary, I would not have taken the same journey in life.  It is my hope that as we approach 20 years of democracy and 17 years since the adoption of the Constitution, that Constitutional literacy become more accessible to all and that it provide for many more young people in South Africa the opportunities that I had.

In preparation for the moot court competition, it was essential to have our own Constitution booklets and I still carry mine with great pride. I keep it close to where I study, as motivation to continue to work hard and as a reminder of how far we’ve come. I use my constitution booklet for clarity when constitutional issues are debated in the media and use it to help form my opinions on current and proposed legislation. It is for these reasons that I am in full support of The Know Your Constitution campaign, as it is my strong belief that every South African should have access to these booklets. The Departments of Basic Education and Justice and Constitutional Development must better fulfil their constitutionally mandated roles to make constitutional literacy more accessible and meaningful.

They should make concerted efforts to distribute constitution booklets to more citizens and provide for more support for civil society organisations that fill in the gap of providing constitutional education. Our Constitution embodies the spirit of all those who sacrificed their time, efforts and lives, in a quest for justice and equal human rights for all. It is in honouring this spirit and legacy of our freedom-loving forebears that we must make the Constitution known to all. DM

Photo: Mikhail Hendricks and First Lady Michelle Obama during her visit to the University of Cape Town recent visit to South Africa. (Picture:Sulekha.com)

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