All good people yearn for peace, progress and prosperity.
Peace in the sense of freedom from violence in a well ordered society in which the rights of the poor and marginalised are treated as equal to those of everyone else.
Progress aimed toward a developed state in which the lot of one’s children is better that than of one’s parents.
Prosperity enjoyed by all, not just the elite and chosen few.
Our new South African society is built on the grit, inspiration, passion, determination and perseverance of its active citizens. A new order is unfolding in which human dignity, the achievement of equality and the enjoyment of guaranteed rights and freedoms are the birth right of everyone in that society, whether indigenous or foreign-born and irrespective of age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, occupation, religion, culture, language, conscience and belief.
The founders of the new SA certainly envisaged the pursuit of peace, progress and prosperity. They enacted a Bill of Rights which is the envy of the civilised world. It obliges the state to respect, protect, promote and fulfil all of the rights guaranteed to everyone that are set out in Chapter Two of the Constitution, our supreme law.
Any conduct and even any laws which are inconsistent with the proper implementation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution are invalid and can be struck down. This is possible at the instance of those who are so bold as to litigate in the public interest or via the more economically feasible general class action recently developed by the courts in litigation aimed at holding a cartel of bread manufacturers to account.
Our courts independently adjudicate all disputes which are brought before them. The courts answer only to the law and the Constitution. They act without fear, favour or prejudice in their work and the Constitutional Court, not any politician or political party, is the final arbiter of the meaning and interpretation of the Constitution. The courts are enjoined to promote the spirit, purport and objects of the Bill of Rights when they are required to interpret any legislation and when they develop the common law or customary law.
Thoroughly and purposefully implementing the Bill of Rights is the surest way to a brighter future in which equality, dignity, the right to life with freedom and security of the person are at the front of the national stove. Our system of governance is informed by the values of openness, accountability and responsiveness to the needs of ordinary people.
The overwhelming majority of the political players active in the 1990s embraced the new Constitution as their own after about 2 million active citizens directly participated in its formulation.
Now the nation is twenty-one years down the track and the satisfactory achievement of our national goals remains as elusive as ever. What is the engaged and active citizen, ill-equipped to mount court challenges against the conduct of government and the adoption of questionable laws to do to ensure peace, progress and prosperity?
Here are some suggestions:
- Start each day with a prayer, a meditation or a moment of sober reflection on the issues of the day. This is not as ethereal as it may seem. The majority of the SA population professes to be Christian. Many are lapsed or dormant in their beliefs. The discipline involved in taking that moment to ponder or to pray for our nation and our leaders can help set up the correct atmosphere for change. Many prayed for the release of Nelson Mandela and for the end of apartheid. Many more thought these prayers were the pious hopes of those who dream for the impossible. Even atheists are not obliged to sit with their heads in the sands of unconscious citizenship.
- Be an accountable and responsible citizen. Everyone can do this. Everyone should. By being accountable themselves engaged citizens in effect undertake to always be in a position to rationally justify the decisions they take and to explain their actions in a manner which accords with the standards of reasonableness. Accountability does not only belong in the political sphere, one ought to be accountable to one’s family and friends, one’s school or place of work, to one’s church or club and most certainly to one’s self.
- Uphold the law and nurture the Constitution. Fealty to the rule of law is not necessarily a complicated exercise that involves expensive litigation. It can be as simple as buckling up that seatbelt before you start the car, giving up texting or talking on the phone while driving, refusing to buy pirated goods or spare parts from a chop-shop. The list is endless. When the law is broken or you suspect it may have been broken, report the incident in question to the authorities. Crimes are reportable to the local police. Even if that stolen cell-phone is not insured, report its theft – not in the forlorn hope that the police will recover it, although they do sometimes, but in the sure knowledge that the report will be captured in the police data-base and will inform policy making and allocation of resources in the future. Maladministration of the state is reportable to the Public Protector. A simple and even anonymous letter is all that is required and the services of the Public Protector are free. If you become aware of a human rights violation, report it to the Human Rights Commission. It exists to investigate infringements of human rights and to promote constitutional democracy. There are many more Chapter Nine Institutions that are there to attend to gender based, voting, religious and cultural concerns the engaged and active citizenry may have. Their services cost the individual citizen nothing and like the courts they are required to act without fear, favour or prejudice.
- Vote whenever the opportunity to do so presents itself. The right to vote is a hard won human right and its importance for constitutionalism cannot be under-estimated. Our active citizens encourage those in their circle of friends, acquaintances, colleagues and co-workers to vote too. It is of the essence of multi-party democracy that those who are free to vote should do so. Their vote is secret and the exercising of the right to vote should be regarded as a precious advance won with the blood of the martyrs of the struggle for the freedom to vote. Far too many people in SA do not vote. This is wrong; it undermines the notion of democracy and leaves the will of the people unexpressed at the ballot box. If no one votes the demise of the Constitution is assured and the legacy of those who died in the struggle is disrespected.
- Do as you would be done by. The Bill of Rights is not a wish list of nice-to-have features of the society we would prefer to have some day. Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the enjoyment of freedom are the fundamental building blocks of our new order. Live in a way that displays a commitment to the values in place in our supreme law. Acquaint yourself with the Constitution or at least with the contents of the citizens’ handbook to the Constitution called “Know Your Rights, Claim Your Rights” which is available for free on www.accountabilitynow.org.za. Live in a way that respects the rights of others and protects your own. By acting in this way the human rights culture to which we as a nation aspire is both illustrated and inculcated. A life with human dignity does not necessarily involve great riches, status or power; respect for human dignity can readily be found in the meanest and lowliest of places and the most appalling of circumstances.
- Encourage and practice whistle-blowing wherever and whenever the opportunity to report corrupt activities presents itself. Corruption is the terribly corrosive enemy of human rights. It is theft from the poor. It needs to be dealt with firmly and with courage. There are laws that protect whistle-blowers and civil society organisations that support them in their whistle-blowing.
- Join a civil society organisation, a political party or a religious organisation that appeals to you as one that is dedicated to the pursuit of peace, progress and prosperity. Give of your time, talents and money to these causes or the one of them that best fits your personal taste, availability and requirements.
- Make a noise about the proper implementation of the Bill of Rights. Service delivery protests of a peaceful nature serve to draw attention to failures of the state. A petition, a letter to the editor, a plea to a parliamentary committee, your presence at a peaceful march or demonstration add to the pressure on those who govern to do so in a manner which is open, accountable and responsive.
- Start today. And stay for the long haul ahead, it is worth it.
Paul Hoffman SC is a director of Accountability Now
27 April, 2015.