The South African Constitution sets a benchmark by which our Parliament is duty bound to measure our progress or regression with respect to human rights.
It was the product of painstaking negotiation and historical compromise. It is our codified compact based on a non racial idea called the new South Africa.
Above all, our Constitution inherently expresses the classical definition of human rights: ‘to do unto others as we would have them do unto us’.
It was this impulse that animated the young Mohandas Gandhi after he was pushed off a train in Pietermaritzburg, and the founding fathers of the African National Congress one hundred years ago; a young Steve Biko, who paid the ultimate price, and a certain young journalist who fearlessly uncovered his violent murder; our nation’s father, Nelson Mandela, and our nation’s conscience, Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the feisty Helen Suzman, a lone opposition voice in the apartheid parliament, and countless other individuals who bravely played their part in bringing us here today.
This is why, in our parliamentary democracy, our constitution is sovereign. There are no ‘sunset clauses’ on the Bill of Rights. To say that the codified national consensus has “proved inadequate and inappropriate for our social and economic transformation phase” as Hon Minister Radebe has said is unproven, it is irresponsible and, quite frankly, it is disrespectful.
To demean the Constitution, which was co written by the most iconic minds across political and social divides, to a mere temporary measure is the clearest indication yet of what the governing party has become.
The truth is that our Constitution works. It is the mechanism which directs us unambiguously to redress poverty and inequality. It is not an obstacle to redress. When a government is weak and in need of reform, the solution is not to undo the foundation upon which it stands. The solution is to change that government.
The ANC’s new rhetoric around the need for a so called “second transition” is nothing more than a smokescreen to divert South Africa’s attention away from the real issue of poor governance. It is cynical to argue that South Africa needs constitutional amendments to achieve socio economic progress.
On the contrary, the real roadblock to social and economic change is when South Africa deviates from the Constitution and its founding principles of non racialism, judicial independence, the separation of powers, and devolved government.
The Constitutional Court has fearlessly upheld the people’s inalienable human rights in a number of important judgements:
When a group of parents in the Eastern Cape had had enough of their children being subject to the daily indignity of attending classes in mud schools as a consequence of the government’s failure to deliver, it was to the Constitutional Court they turned to uphold their rights.
When government failure denied the courageous Irene Grootbroom her right to decent housing, it was the Constitutional Court that upheld her human rights.
When the government stood idly by as millions of HIV-positive pregnant women were helpless to prevent the transmission of the virus to their unborn children, it was the Constitution Court which compelled the Minister of Health to provide the necessary medication. On HIV/AIDS, the Court used its powers wisely and with restraint, but with unmistakable clarity.
The elegance of our Constitution is that it defines the boundaries of our policy making. Every party represented here; every think tank and foundation; every NGO and faith based organisation; everyone, in fact, who cares about South Africa, is obliged to find answers within the human rights framework of the constitution.
This is what directs the Democratic Alliance (DA) to support investment in capital infrastructure, and to augment that with a plan for economic reform that will power job creating economic growth.
This is what inspires the DA to embrace Nelson Mandela’s vision of non racialism, and to say that the only way we will achieve this is by building a pro poor, non racial economy.
We start by asking: how do we give expression and meaning to the Constitution?
If amending the Constitution is the answer, then we are asking the wrong questions.
The Constitution has not failed South Africa. The government has. What we have today is a progressive constitution underpinning an increasingly weak government. It is no coincidence the politicians around the world facing a decline in electoral support on the back of service delivery failure have also been tempted to interfere with constitutional arrangements.
The difference is that in South Africa, we will never allow this to happen.
Those who are tempted not to stay the course with our Constitution should remember that change is difficult. Progress can be reversed. Societies can, and sometimes do, fall apart. We don’t have to look far.
Finally, it is ironic that while our human rights inspired Constitution is being talked down at home, it is being talked up abroad.
In a recent interview with Al Hayat Television in Egypt, United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsberg, America’s second female Chief Justice, advised: “I would not look to the U.S. Constitution if I was drafting a constitution in the year 2012. I might look at the constitution of South Africa.”
This endorsement, shared by many, also directs us to ensure that human rights are upheld across our continent. From combating famine in the Horn of Africa, to defending gay rights in Uganda, to ending the traditional subjugation of women in some communities, we must press for human rights norms to be observed.
The last thing South Africa needs is a so-called ‘second transition’ which aims to undo what so many worked tirelessly to achieve.
More than ever we need the certainty of our human rights inspired Constitution to guide us.
Let us be done with the ruling party’s rhetoric, and proudly defend our Constitution. There is only one kind of second transition that will change South Africa for the better: the transition that a peaceful general election, when a DA government is voted into office.
DA Parliamentary Leader