Understanding the Constitution makes for active citizens

As South Africans, we’re always told that we have the most progressive constitution in the world. But how much do any of us know about it?

The vision the Constitution had, in 1994, was to develop active citizens and a responsible, transparent and accountable government who would use this document for social good. But 20 years into democracy, only nine out of every 20 people have even heard of the constitution, and only two of those nine have ever read it or had it read to them. Why is this?

One reason may be that the Constitution is not accessible. People can’t get their hands on the document, and if they do, it may not be in the language they speak.

The documents may all be available online but now the Know Your Constitution campaign, which comprises an expanding group of civil society organisations including SECTION27 and the Human Rights Commission, is promoting the physical distribution of the Constitution in all 11 official languages, as well as in Braille, in public spaces like post offices, police stations and courts.

Reading the Constitution in an official language of choice allows a person to interpret and understand the Constitution better, based on her social and economic context, and increases her access to justice.

Over the next few weeks the Daily Vox will be discussing basic rights in an aim to make the Constitution more accessible. The articles in this series will look issues such as the rights to adequate housing, sufficient food, basic education and access to healthcare services in order to help citizens understand and exercise their constitutional rights more fully.

Constitution cartoon 1

So, what is the Constitution?

The Constitution is the supreme law of South Africa. All laws drafted by Parliament, or policies that are proposed by ministers and their departments, and judgments that are passed by courts, must all be in line with the Constitution. Any laws that are not in line with the Constitution would be declared unconstitutional and would have to be changed.

Our internationally acclaimed Constitution was developed through rigorous debate and negotiation before 1994. The Constitution was not intended to be seen as a legal document but as a social one which aims to redress the injustices of the past and unlock every person’s potential.

The Constitution has an important role in catalysing transformation in South Africa. Knowing your rights allows you a form of agency and a space to claim what is yours. People cannot enjoy their rights and freedoms if they do not know what they are.

Its vision is to build a South Africa based on freedom, justice and equality. This is poetically emphasised in its preamble:

“We, the people of South Africa, recognise the injustices of our past; honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”

The Constitution brought in a democracy with three organs of State – the legislature (Parliament), executive (government) and the judiciary (courts) – and three spheres of Government. These three spheres are what we know as national, provincial and local government.

Each organ and each sphere has particular roles and duties and each are separate of each other.

A chapter of the Constitution, described as the “cornerstone of our democracy”, outlines the Bill of Rights, a list all of the rights we are entitled to, and all the obligations the state has in fulfilling these rights. The State is obliged to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the Bill of Rights.

Now, no right is absolute and all rights are subject to limitation. This means that the right to express yourself is limited – it does not allow hate speech or comments that promote violence or that are untrue, for example.

Another example is that everyone has a right to access to health care services, but this is limited to whatever resources the government has and is limited to the State providing this right progressively, to more people over a long period of time.

The judiciary is expected to the Constitution  to make access to justice open to everyone. However, it is not only lawyers who have a role in promoting a more accessible and human-centred justice system. The Constitution is a document aimed at everyone – from politicians and decision-makers, to CEOs and activists – and everybody has a right to access the document in an official language, and to make use of it.

Promoting an understanding of the Constitution can lead to a more transformed society of people who are active citizens and play a more informed role in a democracy, based on an understanding of their rights are the state’s obligations to enforcing them.

This leads to a new type of language: A language of power, transformation and active citizenry.

Muhammad Zakaria Suleman bio picMuhammad Zakaria Suleman is a researcher for the rights organization SECTION27. His research areas are access to education for learners with disabilities, access to healthcare services, access to food and promoting constitutional education. He writes in his personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter.

– Featured image via Wikimedia Commons