OP-ED

Section27 podcasts engage in constitutional thinking aimed at the ordinary citizen

By Zukiswa Pikoli 13 June 2019
Caption
As much as government is charged with being a custodian of the Constitution, citizens must also safeguard the document by knowing what it says, writes the author. (Image supplied)

It is imperative that as we look towards our freshly minted sixth administration we all roll up our sleeves and commit to a process of inclusion and meaningful engagement.

In the build-up to and post the 2019 elections SECTION27 recorded a series of constitutional literacy podcasts. These were some of the most insightful and engaging conversations with some of our country’s foremost thinkers, activists and citizens.

Our departure was from a position of availing information to tell ordinary citizens about their constitutional rights, and we believe the podcasts would help them to truly understand these rights and their own rights. One of our first guests Lwando Xaso, an attorney and constitutionalist, made an interesting assertion that constitutions could be seen as a form of cease-fire document, as more often than not they are as a result of struggle and contestation. At the end of that contestation, a country still needs to find a way forward. A comment that takes people back at first but on further interrogation urges one to think deeper about the document.

In 1994 a democratic dispensation came, ending the apartheid government whose constitution, adopted in 1983, was in opposition to a democratic and inclusive society. That constitution did not recognise the inherent rights enshrined in the preamble of our current Constitution respecting those who built and developed the country or that South Africa belonged to all those who live in it and that we were united in our diversity. It instead worked to actively divide the country along racial and cultural lines, using the old method of divide and conquer.

Led by PW Botha, the constitution adopted in 1983 was by a solely white referendum vote and was the supreme law of the country until 1994 when an interim constitution was adopted. One of the 1983 provisions was the composition of a tri-cameral parliament composed only of segregated white, Indian and Coloured representatives. When we look at our representation today it seems to reflect the country’s demographic of a majority black government of the people, which is expected to ensure that the best interests of all people in South Africa are furthered. This ceasefire document, therefore, then also becomes a road map that informs the way in which the country is to proceed and run, as it stands our road map is one of an active and inclusive citizenry.

If we are to agree that our current Constitution is a document of inclusivity and unity, should it then not follow that the country’s citizenry be foremost in understanding and owning the document? It should be that in as much as the government is charged with being a custodian of the Constitution, citizens also safeguard the document by knowing what it says. This then provides the means to hold government officials accountable for their actions, ensuring citizens are discerning enough to see when officials are acting counter to their duties and constitutional obligations.

An inclusive government takes citizens into their confidence and keeps them there by being transparent and conscientious when discharging their duties and respect that citizens provide them with the mandate of running the country. Civil society organisations are entrusted with strengthening the efforts of ordinary citizens to speak truth to the power that is state institutions and as a result, should be seen as an additional level of ensuring accountability. It is therefore imperative that as we look towards our freshly minted sixth administration we all roll up our sleeves and commit to a process of inclusion and meaningful engagement.

Chapter 2 section (11) guarantees the right to life and section (10) dignity and yet we continue to see the most vulnerable sectors of our society perish at the hands of state institutions and officials who seem to have forgotten that their allegiance is first to South Africa and the constitution.

We must commit to this because when we are alerted to reports of young mothers losing their babies because the emergency medical services in Northern Cape are in a shambles, it should and must be a rousing call to action for the Department of Health to investigate and take action as to why that is when the right to access to medical treatment is engendered in Chapter 2 Section 27 (3) is not being upheld.

That when Mr Mtunu’s son is buried under the rubble of school toilet walls because of old and unmaintained school infrastructure, the Basic Education officials are not desensitised to yet another child dying at their hands. This is even though Chapter 2 Section 29 (1) of the Constitution says everyone has the right to education and the Minimum Norms and Standards for School infrastructure published in 2013 say that the department of basic education is to have implemented these regulations by 2016.

What became further apparent as our podcast series went on is that the Constitution is not a self enacting document. As such, you would be hard pressed to find that all chapters and sections are implemented and enforced without the need for confrontations and testings, of the correct interpretation and application of its responsibilities.

For example, Chapter 10 Section 195 read together with section 196 (Public Service Commission) provides an effective breakdown and machination, for the citizenry to hold officials to account for non-performance and delivery of their functions. This seemingly provides a framework and consequence management system to ensure public service delivery, yet every year through the Auditor General’s report we see a quantification of the magnitude of public service mismanagement and failure to little or no consequences. This is something that could, through a collective public voice and mobilisation not go unchecked.

An abdication of citizen power leads to a disconnect in responsibilities and lost grounds to asserting citizen concerns and aspirations, because when we do not see and use the tools at our disposal then the battle is already lost.

It is up to ordinary citizens not to get swept up in the euphoria of new saviour leadership to see them through difficult times.

It is for citizens to rather galvanise behind the supreme law of the land and organise around the various sections of the Constitution. This is so as to allow them to fight for their rights to service delivery, access to quality health care, basic education and human dignity. This also is to ensure that state institutions protect and advance the interests and wellbeing of citizens, without fear and favour.

No leader or institution, no matter how virtuous they may seem, must ever go unquestioned. DM

Zukiswa Pikoki is Communications Officer at Section27.

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