Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
29 August 2011

What we talk about when we talk about transformation

“Transformation” has become one of the most used but least examined words in our political discourse. It is a word often bandied about by people in a way that suggests a rather narrow understanding of the word – as if transformation is about replacing reactionary middle aged white patriarchs with reactionary middle aged black patriarchs. If this is what we mean by “transformation”, then we do not understand the word as it has been developed by the Constitutional Court and academics.

We are then also demonstrating that we have a rather narrow and less than inspiring imagination and have little ambition to fundamentally change the nature of power relations in our country away from an authoritarian apartheid past to a more inclusive and egalitarian future.

This does not mean that transformation – even in the constitutional sense – is not a complex and sometimes contested term. We might not all agree on the exact nature of the end goal of transformation, but we must surely agree that transformation cannot mean a harking back to the values and beliefs held dear by those who governed the apartheid state or acted as their hand-maidens. If we were to take the notion of transformation seriously, we cannot use it to mean the opposite of what it was intended to mean.

Thus, even though Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke once remarked that “the meaning of transformation in juridical terms is as highly contested as it is difficult to formulate,” support for transformation must surely mean that we understand that patterns of discrimination, disadvantage and harm are still perpetuated by the way in which society was structured by and during apartheid and remains structured – to some degree – even today. No wonder that in the context of talking about a transformative constitution, former Chief Justice Pius Langa approvingly quoted the following passage dealing with the need for transformation:

[Transformation] requires a complete reconstruction of the state and society, including a redistribution of power and resources along egalitarian lines. The challenge of achieving equality within this transformation project involves the eradication of systemic forms of domination and material disadvantage based on race, gender, class and other grounds of inequality. It also entails the development of opportunities which allow people to realise their full human potential within positive social relationships.

This means that one cannot credibly support any notion of transformation while opposing equality for all social groups regardless of their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Belonging to an organisation which promotes hatred of individuals based on their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation or which propagates the idea that people are not as worthy of respect and concern as others because of such attributes (and hence have to be forced to change who they are as human beings to be accepted and respected by society), would mean that one cannot be viewed as a supporter of transformation. Rather one, must be viewed as being anti-transformation.

Former Chief Justice Langa also pointed out that transformation – in the constitutional sense – requires the establishment of a culture of justification, “a culture in which every exercise of power is expected to be justified; in which the leadership given by government rests on the cogency of the case offered in defence of its decisions, not the fear inspired by the force of its command. The new order must be a community built on persuasion, not coercion”.

Thus a person who fails to justify decisions – especially controversial decisions – taken as a politician or a judge, or a person who tries to silence those who disagrees with him or her by using ad hominem attacks against those critics and opponents (claiming that the opponents are yearning for apartheid, hate the President or the Premier, is plotting against the opposition, is a deployed cadre, or do not support transformation), is not a person who can be said to have embraced the ideal of transformation as embodied by the Constitution. As Chief Justice Langa said:

The Constitution demands that all decisions be capable of being substantively defended in terms of the rights and values that it enshrines. It is no longer sufficient for judges to rely on the say-so of parliament or technical readings of legislation as providing justifications for their decisions. Under a transformative constitution judges bear the ultimate responsibility to justify their decisions not only by reference to authority, but by reference to ideas and values.

Where judges, politicians and those who take part in the public discourse, fail to provide cogent reasons for their arguments, instead, thrashing their opponents on completely spurious grounds by questioning their right to speak or to be heard, then such judges, politicians and debaters are opponents of transformation – not supporters of it.

But, credible support for a transformative vision of the Constitution requires us to do even more. As Chief Justice Langa remarked, this approach to transformative constitutionalism requires us to view the law differently from the way it used to be viewed by the supporters of apartheid and by the legal conservatives who are – alas – still very much with us and among us (in University lecture halls, in law firms, at the Bar and on the Bench). This is because the transformative vision of the constitution requires an acceptance of the politics of law.

There is no longer place for assertions that the law can be kept isolated from politics. While they are not the same, they are inherently and necessarily linked. At the same time, transformative adjudication requires judges to acknowledge the effect of what has been referred to elsewhere as the ‘personal, intellectual, moral or intellectual preconceptions on their decision-making. We all enter any decision with our own baggage, both on technical legal issues and on broader social issues. While the policy under apartheid legal culture was to deny these influences on decision-making, our constitutional legal culture requires that we expressly accept and embrace the role that our own beliefs, opinions and ideas play in our decisions. This is vital if respect for court decisions is to flow from the honesty and cogency of the reasons given for them rather than the authority with which they are given.

This means that we have to accept that the beliefs, values, and history of a judge will be important for the way in which she or he does his or her job and that these factors will play a role in the interpretation and application of the Constitution and of other law.

That is why it will always be important and relevant to ask whether a judicial candidate belonged to the Broederbond or some other secret organisation; whether a candidate opposed apartheid or defended the policies of the apartheid state or of an apartheid Bantustan; whether the candidate has demonstrated a commitment to the values enshrined in the Constitution by word and deed; whether the candidate belongs to a racist, sexist or homophobic organisation; whether the prospective judicial candidate has demonstrated an appreciation of the need to persuade others through reasoned debate by providing reasons for a decision and by engaging in a measured and logical manner with opponents.

For all the above reasons the discussions on the suitability of appointing Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng as Chief Justice is important. It helps to remind us that “transformation” is not only about replacing white faces with black faces (although changing the racial and gender composition of the bench is important) – it is also about the values and beliefs; about what is best for all South Africans, for the poor, for women, for religious minorities, for gays and lesbians, for people living with HIV and people living in rural areas who are often being subjugated by patriarchal chiefs.

For those who wish to run away from the transformative vision of the Constitution and those who actively oppose transformation, the nomination of Justice Mogoeng will come as a godsend. Just to remind us why Justice Mogoeng appears to be an anti-transformation judge, here are some of the concerns raised about him:

  • The National Association of Democratic Lawyers claims that, in 1988, Mogoeng pushed for a convicted man, whose legal team did not represent him properly, to be executed in the Bophuthatswana Supreme Court and that this happened while Mogoeng was a prosecutor serving a Bantustan government;
  • The Johannesburg Bar Council criticised Mogoeng for not giving reasons for dissenting when other Constitutional Court judges ruled that a person could not be defamed by being a labelled a homosexual. This would seem to indicate a prejudicial attitude towards the gay community, the bar council said;
  • Civil society organisations such as Section27, the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, the Sonke Gender Justice Network, the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre and the Treatment Action Campaign have lodged submission with the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) about Mogoeng’s nomination, questioning his approach to gender-based issues;
  • City Press reported that Mogoeng is a counsellor of Winners’ Chapel International, Johannesburg. The church claims to cure “deviations” such as homosexuality by prayer and counselling and this means Mogoeng is a member of an organisation that discriminates against a social group.

Now, if one sees transformation only as a race issue and if one is opposed to the restructuring of South African society along more egalitarian and humane lines, then one might well dismiss these concerns. That is why the “nomination” of Justice Mogoeng has been defended by some – usually by attacking the motives of those who have expressed these concerns, and by trying to discredit and silence those who raise concerns about the nominees transformation credentials by absurdly suggesting that raising questions is anti-transformative in itself.

For me, whether one is prepared to consider these concerns or not says much about one’s politics and whether one supports a progressive or a reactionary vision for our country. This does not mean that I am suggesting those who support justice Mogoeng’s nomination has no credibility and should have their views dismissed out of hand. I am merely claiming that they cannot pretend to be progressive or to speak in support of a progressive cause.

Many South Africans are deeply conservative or even reactionary in their politics – as regular posts by contributors to this Blog demonstrate – and it is important that their voices are heard. But when engaging in debate, they should not try and mislead the public by claiming they are progressive when, instead, they are seemingly yearning for a society that (apart from the issue of race) looks quite similar to the closed, patriarchal, socially reactionary and authoritarian society we suffered under during the apartheid era.

Meanwhile justice Mogoeng will have the opportunity to respond to the sustained criticism and to questions about his fitness to lead the South African judiciary for the next ten years when he appears before the Judicial Service Commission on Saturday. Whether he lashes out at his critics in a desperate attempt to evade scrutiny and be held accountable; whether he evades answering difficult questions by playing the court jester; or whether he commits himself to a truly transformative constitutional project will determine whether he regains some legitimacy and public confidence in his abilities or whether he completely destroys trust in himself and in the judiciary which he might be appointed to lead.

SHARE:     
BACK TO TOP
2015 Constitutionally Speaking | website created by Idea in a Forest