OUR RIGHTS, OUR POWER
As long as there is injustice anywhere there can never be sustainable peace, says Thuli Madonsela
‘We would not have this Constitution if it wasn’t for people acting collectively… Unless we seize our power as a people, the Constitution will remain just a document,’ constitutional lawyer tells audience at the opening event of the Human Rights Festival.
“The “We” is the most important part of the Constitution,” constitutional lawyer Lwando Xaso told attendees in her opening remarks. She said the “We, the people part of South Africa’s Constitution” was significant because it showed a recognition of the people’s power and that “we would not have this Constitution if it wasn’t for people acting collectively… Unless we seize our power as a people, the constitution will remain just a document.”
“Constitutionalism is a dialogue, a conversation, the Constitution is not the stopping of struggle.”
Xaso also reminded those in attendance that the event was taking place as the country commemorated the 69 lives lost in Sharpeville in 1960 and that in December 1996 former president Nelson Mandela chose Sharpeville as the site for the signing of the new Constitution.
Madonsela said that as long as there is injustice anywhere there can never be sustainable peace, and that she first started cultivating a sense of justice as a child and from a “selfish” standpoint when she saw the difference in treatment she received compared with her brother.
“I used to wonder, why is my brother, who is in the same grade as me, able to come home, take off his school uniform and go play while I had to cook, clean and wash both our clothes.” She said that this was when her gender consciousness formed as she started to notice that in society women and girls seemed to bear the brunt of the work.
Ndavi Nokeri – who is well known for saying: “I want every girl and woman to know they belong in any room” – told the audience that she understood the “we” in the Constitution to be about acknowledging the stories of individuals.
Growing up, she had been quite aware that people were exposed to different opportunities and that it was important to acknowledge one’s privilege then seeing where you could step in and make a difference as opposed to leaving it to an external party to step in.
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“We cannot say that we’re moving forward as a nation while half the country is left behind,” said Nokeri, pointing to the crime rate which she said was informed by the country’s inequality.
Madonsela explained that there are various levels of justice and that it is okay to care about justice for the self first “because you can’t give what you don’t have”. However, it had been while she was at the Department of Justice that she started working on issues of justice beyond the self and led the drafting of the Equality Act.
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Madonsela also spoke about the importance of the concept of Ubuntu and how solidarity was central to this. “Many of us have received a better set of cards and should leverage that privilege to help others,” she said, citing the examples of Charlotte Maxeke, Pixley ka Seme and Olive Schreiner.
More than a textbook
Talking about education, Nokeri emphasised that this was not just about what is in a textbook, but about things that affect students such as their home environment, school infrastructure and the socioeconomic conditions they live in.
“What I have seen is that when students don’t have opportunities to actually develop their skills and their intelligence then they [can’t] reach their potential.” When students felt “seen” they performed better because they felt that they were of “value”.
Nokeri said she had noticed across the world that one of the ways in which women are kept “at the bottom of the pyramid is by being denied education”.
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Madonsela said the education system was key to the well-being of the country because it built capability, and that it was important that young people recognise their “god-given” value and for excellence to be recognised.
Ten-year-old Siyavuya Mabece, who wrote a book titled Enough! Stop bullying, stole the show when she asked Nokeri what she was doing in her work with schools to stop bullying. Nokeri replied that bullying needed to be addressed on both sides by finding the reasons that children bullied each other, and instilling the values of self-awareness and self-confidence.
Closing the discussion, Madonsela said Siyavuya was a shining example of the possibilities and opportunities that were afforded by the Constitution, as well as a reflection of the state of human rights in South Africa.
“We have got political freedom, we’ve got legal freedom. When somebody says, those who came before us delivered nothing, this Constitution means nothing’, I will tell them next time, ‘No, Siyavuya Mabece would not be able to write a book and have it at an event like this and have grown-ups listen to her if it wasn’t for the freedoms that we gained.” DM/MC