The Constitution needs to be more progressive and engaged, to respond effectively to a changed landscape
A two-day civic education series wrapped up with a call to radicalise strategies and tactics of protest, as growing threats to constitutionalism and democracy become the norm.
The where-to-next and the how-to of building better public awareness and education that strengthens democracy or constitutionalism were not immediately clear, at the end of a two-day series aimed at bolstering civic education on this topic.
But organisers of the Democracy and Constitutionalism: Civic Education series, Section27 and Casac (Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution) in collaboration with Constitution Hill, said the takeaways are that continued engagements are essential. Along with dialogue, talking and sharing, there’s also room for taking stock and to radicalise.
Panellists cautioned that even precedent-setting court victories, while commendable in advancing social justice, can have limited impact if they don’t push hard enough to effect fundamental change – they inevitably reset to just more cases lined up for litigation.
The sessions on day two touched on the lessons and strategies to be shared generationally, including the need to give voices to school children and those from rural communities. There were conversations about how to find greater connecting points across movements; or room to have bolder strategies, protests and civic action; and a need to return to grassroots activism.
Foundation for new questions
The education series did set the foundation for new questions around revolutionising tactics and strategies from civil society activists. It also tackled how the Constitution needs to be more progressive to respond effectively to a changed landscape, when constitutionalism and democracy are under threats that may not have been imagined possible at the time the Constitution was drawn up.
In her closing remarks, Section27’s head of education Faranaaz Veriava acknowledged that the series had only just touched the surface of issues that need interrogation. She said the way forward remains unclear.
But the gathering, drawing together around 30 panellists, who gave both local and global input, marked intent to build solidarity, to sit with discomfort and to have confronting, robust conversations, if that’s what it takes to take a stand against corruption and captured politicians.
“When we started thinking about this series last year, we were increasingly worried about our moment in this country, but also the moment in this world. We started this series as an idea around reigniting civic education, and now we have to decide how to take it forward.
“Do we look at getting more radical – when protests and litigation alone are no longer enough – or do we look at occupying spaces? Are we at that moment?” Veriava asked.
Her questions came against the backdrop of sessions that highlighted how political leadership in South Africa has morphed into something increasingly antithetical to the vision and aspiration of the Constitution.
Panellists across the sessions pointed out failures in delivery over 28 years of democracy, the rot of corruption and a government dragging its feet, even when it’s been taken to court or compelled by the courts to act. There were reminders of the fight for ARV treatment for HIV patients; the still-unresolved land question; the Life Esidimeni tragedy; failure to deliver textbooks to school children on time; or allowing Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital to linger in a state of sub-optimal function.
Also raised was government’s continued failure to recognise the unequal burden on women when government cannot do its job. Panellists pointed out that when municipalities can no longer maintain street lights or basic police patrols stop taking place, it is women who suffer most. When inadequate child grants do not match inflation, it is also women who come under increased pressure to stretch household budgets further.
They touched on how government officials and politicians have been able to use legal strategy to delay their court cases and to deflect from taking responsibility. The courts have also been used to settle political scores. Panellists called out the ANC government for failing to investigate and prosecute apartheid-era security policemen implicated in the murder of activists in the 1970s and 1980s. Not even being able to attract capacity and competence to ensure the day-to-day execution of public services is an indictment of how poorly government is being run.
Wheels have fallen off
The final word on the series was given to Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, John Jeffery. Arriving as the last-minute stand-in for Minister Ronald Lamola, Jeffery acknowledged that despite having mechanisms in place for community participation in practice, the wheels have fallen off.
He said: “There’s a lot written into the Constitution into laws relating to community participation or participation in government. We’ve got community police forums, school governing bodies, health structures. We’ve got the Integrated Development Plan (IDP)… we’ve got all that. But the question is: how much of it is working? And obviously, the IDP process isn’t, if you look at all the community protests and service delivery protests that are going on. The intention is there, but we need to be looking at why it is not working.”
Jeffery also acknowledged that bureaucracy and lack of communication within government is “designed to conceal information from the executive”. He said this meant delays in information moving up the higher structures of government and inevitable delays in problems being flagged or fixed.
He did not touch on corruption, politicians or officials spending more time fighting court cases than doing their jobs, or the growing trend of political disputes headed to courts for resolution.
The deputy minister did express an “open door policy” and hoped that officials from all tiers of government would be included in any future civic education initiatives. MC/DM
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