Constitutional Values, Diversity and Democracy

Wednesday, 3 September, 2008 - 09:55

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) launched its first dialogue series on constitutional values on 22 August in Johannesburg.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) launched its first dialogue series on constitutional values on 22 August in Johannesburg. Held under the theme “Unity in Diversity: Promoting and Advancing Constitutional Values in South Africa”, representatives from government, human rights organisations and civil society came together to discuss constitutional values in a democratic society.

The SAHRC hopes these discussions will enable South Africans to critically assess the inherent challenges of applying constitutional values as interpreted by different interest groups in a highly contested political, cultural, religious and economic terrain.

SAHRC chairperson Jody Kollapen, said the meeting took place at a time when millions of South Africans “live outside the Constitution”. Kollapen argues that South Africans should begin to deal with the fundamental values of the Constitution as the country approaches general elections next year.

Former education minister and retired parliamentarian Kader Asmal called for debate around how often the Constitution should be amended. These debates should also focus on the value of the Chapter Nine Institutions to ensure their independence. “A vigorous, healthy democracy entails, no doubt, vigorous, robust debate,” he said.

In the same vein, president of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), Tinyiko Maluleke, warned that discussing constitutional values and diversity is a meaningless exercise as long as the country fails to identify “who is human.”

Maluleke said South Africans are still not equal even after 1994 there is a sense that some lives are more important than the others. He argued that this is evident in the different ways in which the government delivers services to townships compared to so-called historically white suburbs.

He recalled living in Tembisa township in the East Rand, where the municipality had a tendency of taking few days before fixing a sewage pipe unlike in Centurion where it takes only few hours.

National Alliance For Non-Government Organisations’ Eric Ntshiqela, blamed the government for the recent xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals in the country. Ntshiqela posits that government is failing to engage ordinary citizens on issues that affect them. He argued that all the important meetings take place in places that are “not accessible” to communities. Meetings take place in “suburbs and in the books,” he stressed.

Speaking to the issue of mutual vulnerability within the current socio-political context in South Africa, National Research Foundation chairperson, Catherine Odora Hoppers, called for South Africans to learn from other cultures. She pointed out that if humanity diversity refers to the presence in one population of a wide variety of cultures, opinions, ethnic groups, socio-economic backgrounds, then diversity should be manifested in the existence of many people contributing their unique experiences to humanity’s culture.

While echoing Odora Hoppers’ sentiments, Nontombenhle Nkosi, CEO of the Pan South African Language Board (PANSALB) also criticised the Constitution for allowing the legalisation of abortion for girls as young as 14. She argued that this fails to recognise African cultures.

Independent conflict analyst/facilitator, Jan Van Eck, cautioned against viewing dialogue processes as competition, instead of understanding it as an opportunity to bring communities, government leaders and civil society organisations together to debate issues of national interest.

Van Eck, whose spoke about dialogue as a tool to advance unity in a conflict-ridden situation, experiences from the Great Lakes region, explained that informal dialogue empowers locals to deal with issues that affect them.

He cited how informal discussions benefited war-torn countries such as Burundi and Rwanda, where people were killed on the grounds of their origins and ethnicity.

However, Maluleke believes that South Africans need to discover themselves at a personal level before debating on diversity and intolerance. Given the recent Joint Working Group (JWG) protest against John Qwelane’s column in the Sunday Sun newspaper, which is marked by hate speech against lesbian and gay people, his comments are particularly relevant.

JWG coordinator, Emily Craven, points out in a press statement, “The article exceeds the bounds of free speech in terms of the Constitution as it advocates hatred on the grounds of a person’s preference for having relationships with members of the same sex.”

Asmal cautioned against the use of “violent and extremist” language, which he argued violates the core elements of the Constitution. Expressions such as; “prepare for war”, and “ready to fight to take over the streets”, are not only offensive, but also constitute a danger to the country’s democratic order, he said. Asmal argued that language like this is intimidatory and precludes any debate about ends and means.

His comments came in the wake of the recent meetings between the SAHRC and secretary-general of the Congress of the South African Trade Unions, Zwelenzima Vavi, and another with the newly-elected president of the African National Congress Youth League, Julius Malema, over “shoot-to-kill for Zuma” comments.

The dialogue series forms part of the SAHRC’s objective to facilitate a national discussion on constitutional values. In addition to specific dialogues, the series will also include provincial dialogues where community-based or grassroots organisations and the general public can discuss and debate issues of concern to them; web-based electronic discussion forums to maximise the participation of as many stakeholders as possible; engagements with the 2010 Soccer World Cup to promote and protect human rights during and after the 2010 World Cup and following-up on South Africa’s international obligations such as the development of the National Action Plan to Combat Racism which was agreed to at World Conference on Racism.

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