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Benefits of democracy lost in the gap between constitution and complex reality


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Along the mall in Washington DC stands the Korean war memorial. Alongside it, a marble wall with the powerful words, ‘Freedom is not free'.

At first glance the words are paradoxical. For surely freedom, once attained, leads to liberation of the spirit as well as the economic benefits which go with the freedom to choose and express oneself? But, the inscription also tells us that freedom also comes at a price. So this week as South Africans commemorate Human Rights Day, our minds are inevitably cast back to the price of our own freedom. For amidst the everyday political battles, it is easy to forget that the freedoms which we enjoy today came at great cost.


Of course the inevitable question which then arises is whether we have done enough to realize human rights in South Africa and whether the potential of each citizen is being harnessed as envisaged in the Constitution? We know great progress has been made in creating the procedural framework for democracy and the realization of rights. The South African Constitution has enshrined fundamental human rights as well as socio-economic rights such as the right to health-care, water and education. The legal framework for the prioritization of these rights has been crucial in setting standards for a culture of human rights. Recently the University of Cape Town's law faculty hosted former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson and his fellow Judge Albie Sachs to speak about their experiences tenure as the first members of the Constitutional Court. It was both fascinating and unique to listen to two such distinguished legal minds humbly but insightfully reflecting on the judgments of the Court specifically in the arena of socio-economic rights. But what progress has been made in creating a society in which individuals are able to live with the dignity the Constitution envisages?

Idasa's latest publication, incorporating its Democracy Index, entitled ‘Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?' sets out to provide an assessment of South Africa's democratic progress thus far. Again, the consensus is that the country has successfully set up formal institutions of democracy however, it is often in the functioning of institutions, in the interpretation of the Constitution and in providing access to basic rights that democracy falls short and fails the poor. The Democracy Index also finds that weak institutions, a significant characteristic of South Africa's democracy, have largely been unable to promote the effective functioning of the state, and are increasingly not providing the checks and balances necessary for democracy to flourish. The lived reality therefore is that South Africans today have some of the highest levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment in the world. Compounding these crises is the generally poor state of the public service. The role of the public service is crucial if citizens are to access their rights in a meaningful way. But in South Africa today all too often the public service appears hamstrung either through a lack of skill, capacity or simply too politically partisan to be at all effective.


Fuelling this mixture of economic and political stresses are social factors such as race, immigrant status and gender. In 2008, a wave of xenophobic attacks swept through South Africa, and continuing outbreaks of xenophobia, pose a serious threat to South Africa's nascent human rights culture. ‘Testing democracy' warns of violence and instability which arises within communities where integrating social, economic and cultural factors and the often concomitant economic stresses such as poverty create a volatile environment threatening the country's social fabric.

And so, in the complex vortex which is South Africa's communities, the many freedoms articulated in the Constitution have yet to be realised. As "Testing democracy" finds, however, the realisation of socio-economic rights cannot be separated from the civil and political rights which South Africans enjoy. While solutions to our challenges often elude us, South Africans remain extremely vocal on the issues of the day. However, the exercise of civil and political rights and our ability to express dissent are crucial ingredients of the search for a decent future.

So, when the NGO Equal Education marches for the right of every child to education, it is the right of free expression which creates the platform for such activism. So, any attempts to frustrate the exercise of such rights to free expression must be resisted. It is worrying therefore that the Zuma government's knee-jerk response to protest has often been attempts to circumscribe it.

But this week as we mark human rights day we have to acknowledge the gains but also be mindful of the shortcomings of our democracy and that while the child may travel throughout the world ‘without a pass', as Ingrid Jonker wrote so eloquently, this democracy is indeed going through a period which is testing not only our institutions but also the Constitution which underpins them.

Written by: Judith February, head of Idasa's Political Monitoring and Information Service

This article first appeared in the Cape Times, Wednesday, 24th March 2010.

‘Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?' is edited by Neeta Misra-Dexter and Judith February (available from Idasa)



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