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When the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, came into effect on 4 February 1997, it embodied much more than the codification of the values, rights and principles of a new nation. It became the symbol and testimony of goodwill, of compromise and of everything that South Africans aspired to achieve as nation.
Almost all of us understood the Constitution to be the supreme law of South Africa and most of us knew that legislation or conduct inconsistent with constitutional provisions would be invalid. We were quite clear on the fact that the Constitution applied both vertically and horizontally - thus, between the State and its citizens, as well as between citizens in their conduct with one another. We all have a fair understanding of what our fundamental rights - our basic human rights - entail and we are, justly so, quick to claim those rights should we be denied any of them. Each one of us has also at some point in time probably heard the maxim that, ‘with rights come obligations’. However, whether we all really understand the scope of those obligations is quite another matter.
During the recent National Social Cohesion Summit held in Kliptown, Soweto, delegates representing all stakeholders mulled over the concept of social cohesion. However, It was rather obvious that in pursuit of solutions to ensure an elusive, coherent South African society, delegates were not necessarily on the same proverbial page. Statements and discussions originated from different vantage points with subsequent positions being argued from opposing, subjective perspectives, influenced by past experiences, perceptions and prejudices of what was understood to be wrongdoing by others.
At this event, President Zuma missed the opportunity to inspire the nation. Instead, fighting for an upcoming election, the key solution he could offer to our social cohesion conundrum appeared to be a "socio-economic transformation programme" as "a primary tool of national reconciliation, nation building and social cohesion…" Minster Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma spoke of a racial superiority which, as with racism, could hardly be blamed on any one racial group alone. Subjective perspectives and perhaps even gross intolerance were also evident from the reaction to a suggestion by Dr Corné Mulder about the establishment of a department to address minorities' perception that they are being sidelined by the government. His suggestion was met with laughter and rather sarcastic comments, instead of a politically and socially mature understanding of an honest fear and perception highlighted by a particular constituency. Minister Collins Chabane later reasonably reprimanded the audience during his response and stated that social cohesion was inherently built upon the ability to listen to, and respect, one another's ideas, regardless of whether we agree with the substance and merit of such idea. South Africans have apparently not yet reached a point where they can be tolerant and respectful towards one another, even, and especially when ideas and suggestions differ from our subjective perspectives and ideals. Where then do we begin to find social cohesion? The Preamble itself probably provides the best example of a common yet also personal roadmap and action plan, which appeared to have eluded the National Social Cohesion Summit.
The Constitution provides us with practical guidelines on social cohesion and we need not look much further than the Preamble, which essentially encapsulates four key themes woven into the rest of the Constitution: Healing the divisions of the past; the creation of a new society; improving the quality of life for all; and commitment to building a united and democratic South Africa. Although lawyers will rightfully contend that a preamble to any legal instrument is not binding (but merely informative), it is probably not completely off the mark to assert that the Preamble to our Constitution was, and remains, a moral compass and personal checklist written in such plain and understandable language that each one of us could understand and associate with it. The question is whether we believed this Preamble to be yet another introduction to perpetuity, or whether we truly understood it to be a personal and individual dedication to true national unity and sincere social coherence, based on the initial goodwill and common aspirations which guided the drafting of the Constitution.
Our Constitution was not only the result of extensive multi-party negotiations, but also the culmination of the desire of a nation to be healed from physical and psychological scars left by our past. It was indeed the chalice of our peaceful transition, perhaps more than it being the highest law in the land. It was our peace treaty, our roadmap to moral recovery, our social conscience and the codified agreement of a once divided nation to be united by ubuntu. Justice Mokgoro in the Makwanyane-case referred to these ideals as the envelopment of, "key values of group solidarity, compassion, respect, human dignity, conformity to basic norms and collective unity" which in its fundamental sense denoted "humanity and morality". How many of us have, however, taken to heart and truly come to grips with what the Constitution demands from each of us - personally, rather than of your fellow South Africans or the government? Very few of us - across all racial groups - can honestly say that we have been viewing the Constitution as the roadmap and rule book guiding our ideas about the community and the country we want to live in. More importantly, very few of us probably viewed the Constitution, apart from being a grand document, as a clear and practical instruction on how we ought to be treating our fellow South Africans - especially those who we encounter in our daily lives.
During big sporting events we get to experience sporadic moments of national unity and social cohesion firsthand, when we share a common goal - something as practical as winning a rugby or soccer game. When faced with adversity - albeit on the rugby, cricket or soccer pitch - we are inclined to be great as a unified nation. In those instances, we appear to be quite willing to embrace ubuntu and the aspirations of our Preamble by being compassionate, caring and united, not only as a nation, but also as individuals. Yet, somewhere between the last victory and the next kick-off, we manage to retreat to our subjective consciousness of "us" and "them" and "me" rather than "we". When we come to understand that the provisions of Preamble (and the Constitution as a whole) are clear and personal instructions on how to be a good citizen, reciprocity rather than retribution will drive our expectations and dictate our demands.
Social cohesion starts with each one of us. We need think about why we think the way we think - especially about others. We cannot mirror ourselves in the shoes of others and base our conclusions about one another on our own subjective and skewed understanding of another's reality. We could, however, assess our own behaviour, our own conceptual framework and our own biases and we can try to understand how those prejudices impede our ability to unite in our diversity. In guiding a personal introspection, we need to turn to the Preamble of our Constitution and ask whether we - each one of us - are willing to afford the same rights to another as we would claim for ourselves. Each one of us has a constitutional and higher moral obligation to heal the divisions of our past and develop a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights. Social cohesion starts with a preamble - to selflessly accept everyone we interact with on a daily basis as equal in all possible ways. It starts with how we respond to others, rather than how they respond to us.
We, the people of South Africa - not we the interest groups, political parties or assemblies divided by race, class or culture - we, each one of us, must in our own personal way build our own united and democratic South Africa with compassion, true understanding and mutual respect. Have we really, fully recognised the injustices of our past committed against us by a system which left us utterly sceptical of one another? In recognising those injustices, we need to agree upon a common and inclusive history. In honouring those who suffered for justice and freedom in our country, we still need to respect those - regardless of race, class or culture - who have worked and are willing to work to build and develop our country in the best interests of all. We need to genuinely comprehend the continuing inequality and persistent socio-economic divide and commit to creating wealth and prosperity for all - not by dividing, but by multiplying through sound economic and growth policies. We have to inherently transform our society - not by creating a new racial inequality, but by creating opportunities for all. We need to accept that in order to heal the divisions of the past, we have to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person. In order to achieve this, we will need to compromise beyond our political mantras, cultural convictions and personal preoccupations. Moreover, we do need to believe - across all racial lines and without doubt - that South Africa belongs to all of us who live here. We cannot do this by fuelling race and class divisions as part of short-sighted and selfish political aspirations.
The Preamble of our Constitution is clear. The meaning and intention of the words in this prelude to a legal tour de force are unambiguous. Our Constitution enshrines and protects the values, rights and principles of a society we struggle to be, but aspire to achieve. It remains a living, working testimony of the failures and achievements of our time. When we, the people, are ready to live up to these values, rights and principles in our own personal lives, each one of us - Black, Brown, Indian and White, united in our diverse views - will reap the fruits of true social cohesion in our communities and in our country. Do we truly believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it? Crucially, do we live and act like we believe it? Judge for yourself, but judge yourself first.
Written by Adv Johan Kruger, Centre for Constitutional Rights