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25 Years of the Constitution and Me: The words for which I never had to fight

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Lwando Xaso is an attorney, writer and speaker . She is the founder of Including Society. She is also the author of the book, ‘Made in South Africa, A Black Woman’s Stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress’. Follow her at @includingsociety.

Friday, 10 December 2021, marks 25 years of our country's constitution and Maverick Citizen will be publishing articles throughout the week commemorating the occasion with various reflections from ordinary South Africans and civil society. The articles will culminate in a special newsletter that will go out on Friday, 10 December 2021. 

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” Charles Dickens might as well have been writing about the first 25 years of our Constitution defined by the most extremes of human achievement, failure, progression and regression, pride and shame. I have come of age, alongside a Constitution with more potential than we have realised.

(Photo: dearsouthafrica.com/Wikipedia)

I imagine our constitutional democracy as a child of the revolution that has come of age having gone through growing pains and many human development phases such as infancy, a phase where infants have to learn to trust. It has gone through toddlerhood, a time of learning independence.

It has gone through the pre-school years where children learn to assert themselves and to speak up. Our Constitution has lived through its early school years, the phase in which we start struggling with self-esteem.

It has gone through adolescence when we are beset by an identity crisis and confusion. Now at 25, it is in the throes of young adulthood, a phase when we start solidifying our identities and our brains are considered fully formed. How have we, the people, its custodians, treated our constitutional democracy? As its guardians, have we nurtured it? What harm have we inflicted on it?

How have we helped shape its esteem and its identity?

For all the valid criticism that can be levelled against our constitutional democracy, I want to share three personal stories of the impact our Constitution has had on my phases of development from my early school years – when I first held the Constitution in my hands – to now.

During my adolescent years, I, too, experienced a crisis of identity as a black teenager attending a predominantly white school. One of the moments that helped steady the headiness of my growth and my country’s transition at that time was watching then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki deliver the “I am an African” speech at the adoption of the Constitution by Parliament on 8 May 1996.

That speech remains a gift in our constitutional democracy lexicon of which I truly do not think we have even begun to understand the magnitude and depth. Declaring that I am African within the chambers of a previously colonial and apartheid Parliament helped me discover a lost part of myself. On behalf of a people who had been silenced for so long, Mbeki declared who we are to the world. The language produced during the making of our Constitution confirmed my humanity.

I remember shortly after the Constitution was signed into law. I was about to start high school. Back then, the pocket-sized Constitution was ubiquitous.

Our classes were infused with things to know about the Constitution. We were told that we, at 14 years old, had rights. Just the power of reciting those rights elongated my spine.  

I was emboldened by constitutionalism. I started testing boundaries too, sometimes with disastrous results, such as when my dad asked me to do my chores and the newly empowered me responded by saying: “I have rights, and you cannot make me do what I do not want to do.” My dad stared back at me in disbelief, probably thinking: what are they teaching my kid at this white school? But I also sensed his pride in my audacity.

The Constitution made me audacious in how I thought and what I said. It was disruptive at home and school. Being an incredibly shy child, the new Constitution brewed in me a desire to speak forwardly and thoughtfully one day.

During my young adult years, I was reminded again that I should not take the words of our Constitution for granted. We focus on the tangible outcomes of our Constitution, rightly so, but we forget the power of the words on that parchment.

I was in my 20s studying in the US, the Midwest, to be more precise. I took a class on constitutional theory, and the themes of abortion and affirmative action were on the syllabus. The university I attended and the state that it was in was overwhelmingly white and conservative. These matters remain largely up for debate in the US in a way that they are not in South Africa.

To me, being black in the US felt more precarious than being black in South Africa, all because of our different constitutions. Those classes and my time in the US made me grateful that our Constitution has placed certain matters beyond debate and the popular vote.

I do not have to suffer the indignity of always arguing for the right to choose what I want to do with my body or why the previously disadvantaged should be given preferences to achieve substantive equality.

The presence of the Constitution in my life has meant the disinheritance of certain battles that I do not have to fight, like convincing anyone that I am the bearer of rights I simply have to show you.

Whatever struggles I face in my life are faced under better conditions than the conditions my grandparents and parents struggled under.

In its young adulthood, our actions will determine the nature of the identity our constitutional democracy will assume for generations to come.

Happy 25th birthday to an imperfect but consequential Constitution. Thank you for all the words that I have never had to fight for because they are there in black and white. DM168

To learn more about the making of the South African Constitution, please visit www.ourconstitution.constitution hill.org.za

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Rory Macnamara says:

    Indeed the Constitution does give one a better life than experienced by as the writer states, “her parent and grandparents.” perhaps as the writer has discovered also that the Constitution does not allow for cheekiness and disobedience and to respect parents (which has solid base in the Bible) It does not give anyone the ‘right’ to ride roughshod over other peoples ‘rights’ and commit crimes like looting and destruction which results in some deaths. It does not give people the right to block main traffic routes at the expense of law abiding people who believe in the Constitution. our Constitution albeit 25 years old on paper is still to be understood by the vast majority who understand the whole constitution and not just the pieces that suit certain agendas. so I put the constitution at pre school and am thankful that the writer shows this as well. now to get to the remaining 55 million plus!

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