SA Constitution : A non-racial effort
Resource type: News
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SA’s political tumult loomed large at Liliesleaf Farm in Johannesburg on Thursday as a group of business, legal and intellectual leaders came together to form a new civil society body to promote the constitution and guard against what the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) recently called “the predator state”.
The launch of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution as a non- party-political, nonracial effort was accompanied by a scathing attack on corruption, greed and patronage in the state.
The council presented itself as an association of “progressive constitutionalists” who believe the constitution offers a “transformative framework” to secure rights and human dignity.
Its chairman, Sipho Pityana, warned of a conservative assault on the constitution from the “very powerful in our society”.
The event is potentially the most profound “nonpolitical” political event since the first democratic elections in 1994 and comes as SA is buckling under the strain of political fallout from attacks on the media and freedom of information, infighting among members of the ruling alliance over economic policy and political strategy, a devastating three-week public sector strike, and ahead of next week’s African National Congress (ANC) national general council in Durban.
The launch may quieten criticism that leading individuals in the ANC have failed to provide civil leadership in the midst of severe political stress.
The body’s advisory council is made up of an elite of prominent lawyers and activists, and honorary members include Bobby Godsell, Njabulo Ndebele, Mamphela Ramphele, Emma Mashinini and former Constitutional Court justices Yvonne Mokgoro and Kate O’Regan.
Mr Pityana said yesterday that the constitution is not under threat but some recent developments are a “cause for concern”. He was scathing about corruption and patronage, saying they are so pervasive that “we are on the verge of being deemed a dysfunctional state”. Mr Pityana and a member of the advisory council, Richard Calland, wrote in yesterday’s Business Day: “We agree with the recent analysis of Cosatu: the extent of corruption and patronage is now so rampant that the principles of public accountability and efficacious public service are now dangerously undermined by what the union federation calls the ‘predator state’.”
Mr Pityana questioned, “in light of recent events”, whether the National Prosecuting Authority “carried as much integrity as before” and whether it executed its mandate without fear or favour — an apparent reference to the firing of former national director of public prosecutions Vusi Pikoli, and the appointment of his successor, Menzi Simelane.
Mr Pikoli is a member of the advisory council.
The new body’s focus is on the responsibility of citizens, as custodians of the constitution, to advance its core principles, without political allegiance . This was reflected by those attending, who included ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete and Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille.
Ms Mbete said she is excited about the initiative as it is important to bring the constitution closer to the people. “That has always been a preoccupation to me; that’s the biggest challenge.”
In reply to a question about Mr Pityana’s criticism of the government, she said: “That is democracy. That’s what we fought for.”
The DA said it welcomes the establishment of the council and believes it will “add to the strength of the democratic foundations of our country”.
Mr Pityana also said that the way the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) handled the “allegedly errant conduct of a member of the judiciary” — a clear reference to Western Cape Judge-President John Hlophe — was “less than transparent”. He said this brought the JSC’s integrity into question.
But Mr Pityana emphasised that the organisation is not an “oppositional” one, focused only on criticising the government. “In some cases we will work and partner with government, and in some cases raise forceful objections to what government might be doing.”
Legal Resources Centre national director Janet Love said it is “great that people are understanding the constitution as something we’ve made for ourselves … the major vehicle for the kind of transformation that our struggle was about”.
Mr Pityana had strong words for the labour movement and business. He said when workers embark on a legitimate strike, they “could never convince anyone that their grievance supersedes a right to life”.
The business community has to “do more to demonstrate commitment to the future envisaged by our constitution”. The council hopes to make “sobering interventions that will direct public discourse and that will enable us to find each other”.
The Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution is an Atlantic grantee.