There was a time in South Africa when protest was necessary; when it fell to every man, woman and child to raise hell in some way over a system that deprived millions their rights. Some did raise hell. Others did not. The point is that marching through the streets, civil disobedience and, yes, even barricading streets with rocks and braving the sting of teargas just to be heard was justified. When society’s most encompassing laws are unjust, there should be no sympathy for “peace-meal” amendments. The entire system ought to be rejected in totality and rebuilt anew.
That unjust system is gone now. In its place is a constitutional democracy that has, at its core, a document that enshrines the rights millions bled and thousands died for. That document is the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.
Still, in the month after we marked 15 years of that document’s existence, cities and towns were brought to a standstill as acrid smoke rose from tyres ablaze in the street. For lack of adequate schooling for their children, one community found voice in vandalising the school of another and the other retaliated with a brutal show of force.
The numbers are indisputable. From the mid-2000s, protests have been increasing in number and aggression, leading some like Moeletsi Mbeki to predict that South African will have Tunisia-style uprising in 2020. He is not alone. Aubrey Matshiqi wrote of his concern that one day the poor might look at the Constitution and what it promises – an improved quality of life and the freedom to realise one’s potential – as nothing but a pack of middle-class white lies.
I, too, am concerned. Not only that those who will be left most vulnerable without the Constitution’s provisions might look on it with scorn, but also that they will do so not realising they’d have discarded the single most important tool in the battle to improve their lives and realise their potential.
The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. The legislature debates and passes laws to realise its vision, the executive implements those laws and the judiciary interprets the law and makes judgments accordingly. These arms of the state are once again beholden to the Constitution. I state the obvious here because it’s evidently not so obvious.
My colleague Sipho Hlongwane made the astute observation that the reason the ANC needed to send its future leaders to a political school was that many of them do not know the rules of this democracy. This ignorance, however, is not just confined to the ANC or to would-be political leaders in any party.
The recent violence in Grabouw, Heidelberg and Kya Sands illustrates, as did the many other similar events before, that the majority of the country remains ignorant of the tools and mechanisms by which they might take up their rights, opting instead for violent protest.
This is not to say protest hasn’t a place in a democracy. It does. When elected officials answer to someone or something other than the people which put them there, as with the Protection of State Information Bill, then rousing the masses to protest, like the Right2Know campaign has, is entirely appropriate. When the executive ignores the outcry over unaffordable toll roads, then by all means, Cosatu, show the power you wield with the everyman. Protest, however, should not be the sole and default means to agitate for change.
In Grabouw, where people turned to protest and against each other over inadequate access to education, the national planning commission had to step in to help the community establish an education forum through which members could lobby and advocate for their children’s right to education. The question is, why did the community either not know or have the means to set up such a forum for themselves?
Part of the blame can be attributed to the Independent Electoral Commission, which does a poor job of voter education. Mamphela Ramphele was right to say the IEC only teaches the electorate, every five years, how to make its X. Its resources are allocated in that way more in the year leading up to an election and significantly less in the in-between years. This enforces the notion that democracy only happens every five years in the voting booth.
Blame can also be put on the government. For one, it should reconsider how the IEC’s resources are allocated and whether, if at all, the body is fulfilling its mandate to promote voter education. I say it is not. Also, the national assembly and the national council of provinces should do more and be more socially aware with their outreach programmes. How about a fellowship programme to allow members of community organisations to attend committee meetings and participate in the legislative process? Encouraging people to participate in Parliament is not enough when the opportunity costs are prohibitive.
Others like the judiciary, which needs to improve access to the courts and civil society that’s largely absent from promoting participatory democracy, should also come in for some stick. Individuals are to blame as well because, while the Constitution is a living document, it is incapable of enclosing toilets and educating children. It relies on the arms of the state and citizens to hold the state accountable.
If people find themselves still living in appalling conditions with their rights violated even after participating in the legislative process, using the courts to enforce rights and holding the government accountable, I will be the first to take to the street chanting, “Woza revolution, woza!”
However, these things have rarely happened. Instead, ignorance threatens the Constitution. DM
- Why SA is burning: Power to the people still a pipedream, in Mail & Guardian.