Quote of the week

[Nostalgia] is rarely the past as actually experienced, of course; it is the past as imagined, as idealized through memory and desire. In this sense … nostalgia is less about the past than about the present. It operates through what Mikhail Bakhtin called an ‘historical inversion’: the ideal that is not being lived now is projected into the past.

David Medalie
23 March 2012

On changing the Constitution

Recent statements by politicians about the need to review the judgment of the Constitutional Court with a view to assess the need for changes to the Constitution, is often accompanied by assurances that the South African Constitution has already been amended 16 times. It is argued that the Constitution was a compromise document foisted on the people of South Africa by evil right-wingers, that the document has become a stumbling block to the effective governing of the country and hence has become a hinderance to the economic transformation of the country. Over the past year many ordinary folk, taking its cue from those talking about changing the Constitution, have taken up this whispering campaign against the Constitution.

There are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, the mere fact that the Constitution has been amended 16 times is irrelevant, as the number of amendments is not what is in issue. Rather what is in issue is the nature of any proposed amendments. Are they good for democracy and for the country or are they bad? Would they insulate the governing party from scrutiny when it flouts the law and the Constitution or would it enhance oversight and democratic accountability for any governing party? Would amendments rob citizens of their rights and their ability to have those rights enforced by the courts, or would it make it easier for citizens to enforce their rights? Would amendments hamper economic transformation by protecting the corrupt in government and the private sector, or would it advance transformation by ensuring open, accountable and transparent government with the requisite oversight powers for the courts?

What those who argue that the Constitution has been amended 16 times do not say, is that almost all of these amendments passed so far have been mere technical amendments of no real substantive or political effect. Where substantive amendments have been made, this has tended to weaken the Constitution and the checks and balances in it, instead of strengthening it, and as such was criticised by many in academia and civil society.

But most amendments have been entirely uncontroversial.

Thus the first amendment dealt with the oath of office to be sworn by the Acting President. Amendment two, inter alia, changed the name of the South African Human Rights Commission to that of Human Rights Commission. Amendment four was needed to confirm that a provincial legislature remains competent to function from the time it is dissolved or its term expires, until the day before the first day of polling for the next legislature. The fifth amendment, inter alia, was aimed at allowing a proclamation calling and setting dates for an election of the National Assembly to be issued either before or after the expiry of the term of the National Assembly. And on it goes.

So far only four sets of amendments of some importance and political relevance have been made to our Constitution. The sixth amendment stated that the head of the Constitutional Court (and not the head of the Supreme Court of Appeal) will become the Chief Justice of South Africa and also provided for the extension of the term of office of a Constitutional Court judge by the legislature. The second part of this amendment was highly controversial as it potentially affected the separation of powers and the security of tenure of Constitutional Court judges and was vigorously opposed by academics and civil society groups. It did not help that Parliament unconstitutionally tried to delegate the power to extend the term of office of a Constitutional Court judge to the President, a provision that was first relied upon by President Jacob Zuma when he wanted to extend the term of office of former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo.

The eighth, ninth and tenth amendments were passed to introduce the highly contentious floor crossing provisions, which allowed members of national and Provincial Parliaments and Municipalities to cross the floor during two window periods — as long as more than 10% of the members of the party crossed the floor. These provisions insulated the ANC from floor crossing (as it would have required between 25 and 30 ANC members to cross the floor together) but decimated smaller parties where even 1 person could easily cross the floor.

In 2009, after the Polokwane conference and in the face of threats of factionalism within the ANC, the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments were adopted to abolish the floor crossing, thus protecting the ANC from possible floor crossing defections by the losing factions of party elections at national, provincial and local government level.

The twelfth and thirteenth amendments provided for the elimination of cross-border municipalities by changes to the boundaries of certain provinces. These were highly contentious as citizens living in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng did not want to be moved to worst performing provinces of the Eastern Cape and North-West respectively. Despite valiant efforts by the people of Matatiele and Merafong, and despite some promises made to the contrary before national elections, the ANC used its then two-thirds majority to force these communities into provinces they did not want to go to.

Every proposed amendment to the Constitution must surely be evaluated on its merits. Amending the Constitution is not per se a problem. Only those proposed amendments to the Constitution that will protect the governing elite at the expense of citizens or will undermine the very nature of our Constitutional democracy, will be problematic. Each proposed amendment will have to be judged on its own merit.

Which brings me to the second problem with this talk about amending the Constitution. Those who argue that the Constitution must be amended because the Constitution has become a stumbling block to the effective governance of the country and hence in effect prevents social and economic transformation, are rather vague about how the Constitution should be amended.

There seems to be two general arguments circulating and being whispered about in this regard. First, some among us are upset that the courts can review and set aside decisions by the President, other members of the executive and other organs of state, when such decisions are not authorised by the Constitution or the law, do not comply with the Constitution or ordinary law or when these decisions are not rational (in other words, when the decisions are arbitrary, made in bad faith or capricious). This argument is based on the premise that those in government should not be bound by the law and should, in effect, be above the law.

For example, if the Constitution or an ordinary piece of legislation requires the President to appoint a “fit and proper” person to a position and he then decides to appoint somebody to that position who has been found guilty of corruption or murder, so the argument goes, it is not for the non-elected members of the judiciary to declare such an appointment invalid merely because the appointment did not meet the minimum requirements set by the law.

Such an argument is no more than an argument for lawlessness. Of course, in such a case there is nothing that prevents the legislature from amending the relevant legislation (or the Constitution – if the requisite majority can be mustered to do so) to abolish the requirement that only a “fit and proper” person should be appointed to the job. What cannot ever be accepted in a constitutional democracy, is a situation where the law and the Constitution can be flouted at will, with no recourse open to the courts to check this flouting of the law.

A second argument is made that the Constitution is a compromise document agreed on by the Constitutional Assembly in line with the 34 Constitutional Principles contained in the interim Constitution and as such lacks legitimacy because it contains many anti-transformation provisions.

Of course, the interim Constitution contained a provision that would have allowed the final certified Constitution to be submitted to voters in a referendum if two-thirds of the members of the Constitutional Assembly could not agree on the text. If at least 60% of the voters approved of the draft Constitution in a referendum, it would have taken effect. The ANC and the NP both avoided this by agreeing on the text. The fact that a referendum was never enforced suggest that the ANC was worried that its version of the Constitution would not obtain a 60% majority in a referendum. Instead both parties, after extensive public participation, agreed to a document which it could live with – although almost all commentators have since argued that the ANC out negotiated the National Party and secured a Constitution that was far closer to its original plans than they could have dreamed about.

In any case, it is unclear which provisions of the Constitution hinders social and economic transformation in South Africa. The property clause is often singled out in this regard, but as I have pointed out several time before that section does not require a “willing-buyer willing-seller” land reform process. Neither does it require the payment of market value for all land expropriated for purposes of land reform. Those who claim that the Constitution obstructs social and economic change has not yet been able to point to any other provisions in the Constitution that mitt be objectionable. This is probably because there are none.

Ours is not an exclusively liberal Constitution. Although it contains a system of government based on the separation of powers and checks and balances as well as all the traditional liberal human rights like freedom of expression, it also contains a set of social and economic rights that places a positive duty on the state to take reasonable steps to provide better and more expansive access to housing, health care, education and other social and economic rights. Moreover, the Constitution applies, to a large degree, horizontally also binding private individuals and institutions like businesses. This aspect is based on the view that the human rights of an individual can be trampled on not only by the state but also by powerful private interests and by individuals.

My question would be: which sections of the Constitution exactly are those that hinder transformation? In my view there are no such sections to be found in our Constitution. Those who argue that it might be time to amend the Constitution to effect social and economic transformation need to say which sections they find objectionable. We can then have a sensible debate about this question. In the absence of such clear proposals and arguments, the mutterings and whispers about the need to change the Constitution can be treated as ill-informed and self serving drivel by those who are seeking a scapegoat to avoid accountability for governance failures over the past 18 years.

My challenge to those who whisper and grumble about the need to change the Constitution is this: either put your cards on the table so that we can debate the issue or stop your self-serving campaign to discredit the Constitution. In the absence of concrete proposals one will have to assume that those who talk about changes to the Constitution are not interested in the well-being of South Africans, but rather in retaining power and access to tenders by scapegoating the Constitution.

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