Professor George Devenish: Freedom day reflections 2018
Many South Africans still live in abject poverty despite political freedom. In this column, published in newspapers across South Africa to mark the 24th anniversary of the first democratic election, Professor George Devenish reflects on how the Constitution can guide the country out of its current quagmire but, he observes, this requires inspired leadership.
On Friday 27 April we commemorated Freedom Day. On April 27, 1994 South Africa held its first democratic elections based on universal franchise and the Interim Constitution came into operation on this historic day. More than two years later, the final 1996 Constitution and its Bill of Rights, drafted by the democratically elected Constitutional Assembly, became operative. The final Constitution was to a great extent modelled on the Interim Constitution.
South Africa has, with the inception of the new constitutional dispensation on April, 27, 1994, made a remarkable transformation from the discredited and fundamentally unjust system of apartheid to a constitutional democracy and an exemplary Bill of Rights. This brought about political freedom for all the people of South Africa, after our tragic and traumatic history of colonial oppression and institutionalised racial discrimination. It did not however instantaneously bring about social and economic justice.
Although significant progress has been made in the 24 years of democratic governance very much more is required to substantially reduce poverty and unemployment and to bring about greater economic equality in our country for all our people, especially Africans. Unfortunately South Africa is at present one of the most unequal societies in the world. According to the South African Survey of 2016 nearly 19 million persons or about 36% of the South African population, the vast proportion of whom are Africans, live in relative poverty.
Taking this inordinate poverty as well as the millions of unemployed persons and the poor service delivery into account, individuals and political parties on the extreme left of the political spectrum are vociferously questioning the merit of the Constitution and the wisdom of political settlement that it flowed from as a consequence of the negotiations at Codesa and the Multi-Party Negotiation Forum of 1992 and 1993 respectively. Some persons have gone as far as to accuse Mandela and his colleagues of betraying the African people because of the economic inequality and social injustice that still persists today and perceive the Constitution as protecting and entrenching white privilege and therefore they are demanding radical constitutional, political and economic change.
In a brilliant television interview given by retired judge Albie Sachs on ENCA on April 27, he explained that the existing social and economic inequality that exists in South Africa is most certainly not the fault of the Constitution. He carefully explained that the Constitution brought about political freedom and the opportunities to bring about social and economic justice using its provisions and its Bill of Rights. A liberal and social democratic Constitution, like ours, is not a deus ex machina that instantaneously produces a just society. It is however a means to attain such a society but requires competent, wise and honest government to bring such a society into being.
Furthermore, Constitutions are not static entities but by their very nature are dynamic. They develop and grow to meet the needs of their populations over the years as societies change. This is what has occurred with the United States Constitution, which was used to abolish slavery in 19th century and bring about civil rights for all its diverse population after World War II over time.
The alternative to a constitutional democracy is a pure socialist/Marxist dispensation, with a central command economy that applied in the erstwhile Soviet Union and former Eastern European Countries until 1989. They proved to be economically unworkable and were totalitarian in nature, providing no individual or personal freedoms, such as freedom of expression, religion and a multi-party system. As a result they were abandoned and replaced by democratic models.
It is not the failure of the Constitution that has caused the unacceptable social and economic injustice that still prevails in South Africa, but the lack of inspired and competent political leadership, particularly during the nearly 10 years of the Zuma presidency, which were characterised by corruption, maladministration and a lack of a political vision for our country and its people.
The inordinate challenge facing the Ramaphosa administration is to use the Constitution to bring about positive change. This will it is submitted require a resource-driven economy, competent government. This will also require rooting out corruption and political patronage. Overseas investment on a large scale is essential for a resource driven economy and the President and his advisors on their recent visit to London for a Commonwealth conference have started with this important process.
South Africa is a country with infinite potential and it requires competent, wise and honest government to realise this potential using the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. In this regard, besides the Ramaphosa administration, the business community and opposition parties that are constructive in their approach and policies have an important role to play. We do not want prophets of gloom or demagogues who advocate populist political ideas and policies such as unqualified expropriation without compensation, or state ownership of all land which the executive will lease out out to persons, and other socialist/Marxist or fascist conduct and ideas, as postulated by the EFF and BFLF political parties. These ideas have failed and brought about economic collapse and the destruction of personal and political freedom in those countries that have embarked on such policies.
Our Constitution includes socio-economic as well as civil and political rights. As opposed to pure socialist/Marxist policies and ideology, our sound and respected Constitution facilitates policies of social democracy, such as for instance found in the Swedish model and the welfare state, used in certain European States. These could serve as a useful paradigm. Therefore let us continue to use, value and celebrate the Constitution, as a one of liberty that was bought by the blood of the martyrs and can now be employed to bring about the social and economic justice so desperately required for South Africa and its people.