South Africa

Op-Ed: ‘Application dismissed’ – a reflection on My Vote Counts v The Speaker of Parliament, and losing

By Gregory Solik 1 October 2015

In light of Wednesday’s Constitutional Court judgment, it seems that everyone wants to 'win', everyone wants to be part of that moment when a victory is secured – no one more than My Vote Counts in a game in which we heavily invested. It’s so tempting to think of the judgment in that kind of all-or-nothing mentality where so much seems lost. But this dualistic approach casts this campaign and everything else in the wrong light. By GREGORY SOLIK.

Application dismissed.”

To hear those two words from a majority of the Constitutional Court after another wave of tireless campaigning on one of the oldest and most fundamental issues we face as a country was brutal.

To watch many opinionistas, though not all, swoop in and provide perfunctory and superficial commentary on a complex issue was bitter. And all the while thousands of fellow lawyers, activists and comrades were walking the streets to demand accountability on this issue and more. It certainly felt like failure, and all the voices that had warned My Vote Counts about the risks, and the alternative routes we should have taken, came back to haunt us.

How do you summarise an 84-page judgment into a soundbite. How do you reduce two decades of activism into an op-ed?

It all made me think, for some bizarre reason, of Eric Cantona, a famous and much beloved 1990s Manchester United player, to whom I turned for some philosophical perspective.

Some people unfamiliar with the details of English soccer may remember Cantona for his infamous flying kick at Crystal Palace, but many consider him to be a true genius of the game. He has been credited with much of the ‘heavy lifting’ it took to bring Man United back to life, and Sir Alex Ferguson considered the gifted footballer his most important signing. In his six seasons, Cantona won the premiership title every year except 1995, when he was banned for nine months for that kung-fu kick.

I adored him.

In the 2009 film Looking for Eric a troubled father and football fanatic postman, whose life is descending into crisis, turns to Cantona for guidance and help. It’s a Ken Loach cult classic about old-fashioned solidarity and deals with “broken men, drugs, poverty, violence, betrayal, corruption” – so kind of totally relevant.

Watch: Eric Cantona’s favourite moment

There’s a lighter moment when the protagonist laments the loss of the soul of football games, and asks Cantona what his sweetest moment was during his career. What a question.

I guess it’s easy to assume it was a goal that led to victory – and he scored a few important ones.

Wimbledon. It’s got to be Wimbledon. You’re going towards the ball. The ball’s coming in. You’re sorting out the trajectory of it, the angle of it, the spin on it, the way the wind’s blowing, the speed of the wind. Everything! You stick your right foot out. You stop it in mid-flight. It bounces up about a foot off your leg. You come back. You whack it in the most brilliant way. In it gooooeees – IT’S GOTTA BE A GOAL, ERIC.“

No,” the Frenchman says.

Thinking about that in light of yesterday’s judgment, it seems that everyone wants to ‘win’, everyone wants to be part of that moment when a victory is secured – no one more than My Vote Counts in a game in which we heavily invested.

It’s so tempting to think of the judgment in that kind of all-or-nothing mentality where so much seems lost.

Without a broader perspective, without a deeper memory and a more creative and hopeful imagination, this dualistic approach casts this campaign and everything else in the wrong light. It’s a mistake to see our decision to litigate like this and to talk about the decision in these dualistic and all-or-nothing terms.

This case wasn’t about winning and it wasn’t about losing. No one really wins when you have to force Parliament to do its job and honour its constitutional commitments – commitments and obligations people died for. And it wasn’t even well contested: political parties didn’t show up and Parliament’s submissions were technical and dishonourable.

The thing I loved most about Cantona was that I always had the sense that he didn’t play for titles and he didn’t play to be the best, or any other kind of egocentric goal. He played because he could, and he loved it. He was literally bigger than the game, because he had transcended it. And in a weird way, he was totally honourable.

According to Cantona his best moment was a pass. Not a title, not an honour, and not a goal – a pass to Dennis Irwin against Spurs.

I think that best describes my sentiments about the judgment. The minority judgment penned by Justice Edwin Cameron is a gift in the same way, a mesmerising display of a deep set of judicial skills reminiscent of great jurists: an acute judicial instinct that senses the core issues, combined with intellectual rigour and a rich constitutional imagination. It is a masterpiece which offers all who care about this issue something to hold onto and something to guide the campaign in the future.

Ultimately, perception is everything. And the majority’s view of the case is not necessarily wrong or politically motivated, as some have suggested: it’s just deeply impoverished. Its tone rings hollow.

Any person of faith knows about the tension between rules and doctrine, and the transformative power of truth and justice. I certainly know all about sacred obligations. And the trouble with a conservative approach to fundamental issues about reality is that when you end up focusing on the right theory at the expense of an honest analysis of how things actually work and how you participate in that unjust structure, you lose the power and the opportunity to heal and transform. Because your consciousness cannot see beyond what is placed in front of you, and you don’t recognise a prophet when one speaks.

This case is a pass that reminds us why we play this game of democracy, why we must continue to support it even if it seems that it has lost its soul.

In that closing scene in the movie, the protagonist asks Cantona: What if he would have missed worrying about the possibility of losing and Irwin not scoring? And his answer is simple:

There is no such thing as winning and losing: you must just play and trust your teammates. You must have faith.

Always. If not we are lost”. DM

Gregory Solik is a pupil advocate at the Cape Bar who is a volunteer and board director of My Vote Counts. He writes in his personal capacity.

Photo: Manchester United’s French star Eric Cantona (C) breaks away from the Tottenham Hotspur defence to score for his side at Old Trafford March 24. United won the Premier League match 1-0, putting them 3 points clear of Newcastle at the top, who have two games in hand. 24 March 1996. (Reuters)

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