08 May 2012

16 years since the SA constitution was adopted, it is now under threat!

Adopted on May 8, 1996, the South African constitution is the supreme law of the land. No other government action can surpass the provisions enshrined therein. However, the South African community has been somewhat disgruntled by various developments that seek to undermine it.

Apart from the service delivery protests across the country by communities demanding basic services from government, in line with their constitutional rights, the government itself has proposed regressive laws which contradict constitutional rights, notably, the Protection of State Information Bill (dubbed the secrecy bill) and the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill (dubbed the spy bill).

The secrecy bill makes it a crime to leak, possess or publish information classified by the government. Various bodies within the government and potentially parastatals would have the right to classify any piece of information without having to justify that decision to anyone. Whistleblowers and journalists could face up to 25 years in jail if found guilty of such action.

This is in direct contradiction with the constitutionally guaranteed Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) which was formulated to create transparency and accountability between a democratic state and its citizenry. Ordinary South Africans, academics, opposition parties, some members of parliament and civil society organisations have strongly opposed this legislation but, the government has not taken heed.

The spy bill on the other hand will allow the government to read people's emails, facebook pages and twitter accounts without the typical requirement that a warrant be issued by the court, which is usually only given where there is suspicion that a person has been involved in a crime. This is a complete violation of an individual's constitutional right to privacy.

Recently, a proposal has been tabled by the National House of Traditional Leaders to delete a clause in the constitution that guarantees equal rights to homosexuals. The House of Traditional Leaders is a body formed to advise the government on traditional laws and customs of the different ethnic groups such as Zulus and Xhosas. They argue that homosexuality is unAfrican and goes against religious values which the majority of South Africans subscribe to.

Many South Africans find it distressing, considering the state president himself once made a homophobic statement to which he offered, as some gay and lesbian organizations felt, a half-cooked apology. "In his apology he (Zuma) said he cannot discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation as it is against the constitution. That meant he wasn't apologising as Zuma the man, but as Zuma the politician 'bound' by the principles of his party (ANC). Personally, he probably still harbous homophobic feelings," said LesegoTlhwale, Link Co-ordinator for Behind the Mask, a gay and lesbian organisation.

These current threats to constitutional provisions serve as worrying reminders that despite claims that the SA constitution is one of the best in the world, its power on paper does not necessarily have impact one would expect on people's lives. Vulnerable groups such as women and children continue to be abused. Within the last month alone, at least two cases of gang-rape have surfaced in Johannesburg alone.

Many South Africans still go hungry with no shelter. Some school children still take classes under a tree, and the majority of the youth is unemployed and can hardly afford tertiary education. This then begs the question: "Who really enjoys these glorious rights enshrined in the constitution?"

SAHA is in possession of materials relating to the SA Constitution in the following collections:

AL2992 The Jonathan Klaaren Collection
AL3078 The Multi-party Negotiation Collection
AL3065 The Brian Currin Collection

SAHA also developed educational materials which talk about the notorious 1983 Constitution:

The 1983 Constitution - Source Booklet for Learners

The 1983 Constitution - Guide Booklet for Educators

Find out more about SAHA In The Classroom series

SAHA also developed an exhibition kit about the Bill of Rights which is an integral part of the SA constitution which enshrining all rights afforded to all persons within the country's borders.

Learn more about SAHA's exhibition kits