The South African constitution although widely talked about and acknowledged by the public and press alike as one of the most important hallmarks in preserving the rights of the people, is far from understood, nor is it as accessible to the masses, as one might believe. If truth be told very few people even know their rights and often live under the misconception of what our constitution will uphold and what it will not. This leads both to misunderstandings in terms of what government is supposed to deliver on the one hand, and abuse of those who most deserve their claims acknowledged and appropriately satisfied.
It is within this backdrop that the Constitutional Court Clerks Alumni Association (CCCAA) championed a Programme to raise awareness about the South African constitution – the foundational document of our post-apartheid state. The CCCAA targeted Alexandra as one of the many communities in South Africa that could benefit from a project of this nature and chose to partner with ENS (Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs), Africa’s largest law firm who also have a pro bono office in Alexandra, to kick off this challenging initiative to bring the constitution to the people.
The Programme ran over a period of 5 months and covered a broad range of topics including, The Making of the Constitution and What it Means Today, Access to Information, Access to Justice, Socio-Economic Rights, and Crime and the Constitution. Students were also required to read the South African Constitution, Interim South African Constitution, Communist Manifesto, Freedom Charter, Criminal Procedure Act re: standard for bail, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights and various Judgments of the Constitutional Courts.
‘The programme included both practical and theoretical training to empower leaders in the community to inspire change. It brings the constitution to the people by allowing key role players to learn and understand their rights and duties. We believe that by encouraging responsible citizenship, the course taught participants that in a democracy citizens must remain involved to keep those in power accountable and to ensure that their rights are not trampled on. Further, democracy is not about entitlement, it is about government providing the context in which citizens can do for themselves,” says Kim Robinson CCCAA representative and one of the facilitators of the Constitutional Law and Human Rights Programme.
At the end of the 5 month Programme, fourteen of the original twenty-one community leaders who were hand selected to participate, including a member of staff at Alex FM, an author and members of political parties, completed the rigorous course. “It is these people who have worked so hard and will shine tomorrow at our Graduation Ceremony in Alexandra tomorrow at 13h00” said Robinson. According to Robinson, by educating key members of the Alex community through the Programme, they will become ambassadors to the rest of the community. “This is what nation building is all about”.
“Essentially we want to encourage more and more people to get their hands on a copy of the constitution and to enable them to understand it and how it can be used so they understand their roles as citizens in a democracy” Robinson says.
Thabo Mopasi, Ditswapoleng, and one of the graduates of the first course, says the programme was a first of its kind for Alex, and an eye-opener. “For the first time ever, we understood the difference between civil and political rights on the one hand and socio-economic rights on the other. As a community activist, and one that is proudly South African, this knowledge will enable me to become an agent of change.”
According to Lindie Saunderson, Pro Bono Coordinator at ENS, a lack of awareness of the content in the constitution is a major barrier to many people gaining access to the justice system in South Africa. “Our pro bono work here in Alex over the past few years has taught us a great deal about how little many people know about the constitution that is designed to protect them – especially in the disadvantaged communities in South Africa. Educating South Africa’s poorest communities about their rights will play a crucial role in facilitating a greater upliftment of these people.
“The course has allowed those who attended it to experience a paradigm shift in thinking as participants re-examined their own ideas about the constitution and government policies and now have an informed approach. We want to continue to encourage local communities to make informed use of the constitution to uplift and empower themselves within the context of the South African judicial system.”
The Programme was not only an inspiration to participants and an invaluable experience in terms of the skills and the experience they gained, but was also received with such enthusiasm in the community that the CCCAA and ENS would like to open their doors to more community members who would like to inspire change in themselves and their communities in the years to come.
Abednigo Matu, Greater Alexandra Patrons Against AIDS says, “Before I enrolled for the programme, I knew about the existence of the Constitution, but did not see it as a living document that belonged to all South Africans. Now I am proud to say that I am part of the Constitution and that a real paradigm shift took place within me.”
ENS and CCCAA hope to continue this programme going forward and make it an annual event – next year they are targeting 50 participants and are excited that through the help of the community they are able to make a real difference – “not only is it great, but for ENS it is a privilege, to be part of it” said Saunderson.