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
7 September 2011

Why the Constitution is not a conservative document

Prof Jane Duncan has taken issue with a post on this Blog in which I criticised the views expressed by Deputy Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi regarding the perceived problems with our Constitution. Over at the SACSIS Blog Prof Duncan provides a relatively nuanced and interesting (but in my view misguided) analysis, in which she seems to argue that the Constitution is a major stumbling block standing in the way of addressing the major structural problems in our society which keeps poor people poor and rich people rich:

Ramatlhodi’s arguments are clearly self-serving, and reinforce a trend in the ANC’s behaviour to attack fundamental rights and freedoms. But aspects of his argument ring true, and the standard constitutionalist argument made by the likes of de Vos are inadequate to the task of responding to these criticisms. The contradictions of the type of transition that South Africa chose led to a constitution that is not nearly as transformative as they make like to think. In fact, in certain respects, the Constitution is a profoundly conservative document.

She correctly points out that the South African Constitution is a negotiated document that embodies compromise and that the Constitutional Assembly (who drafted the 1996 Constitution) was bound by 34 constitutional principles which were negotiated by an undemocratic and unelected body at CODESA. She claims that the manner in which the Constitution’s parameters were developed has limited the democratic form and content of South Africa’s constitutional order and notes that:

A clause was also inserted guaranteeing the right to property, where property may only be expropriated for a public purpose and in the public interest, and subject to compensation. So in a cruel twist of fate, the ANC government took on the responsibility of paying for the property that black people had been historically dispossessed of by the white minority. The consequences of this concession to the white minority are starkly apparent. Property relations have remained largely untransformed and land redistribution through the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ mechanism has been largely a failure. The socio-economic rights regime in the Constitution is not geared towards changing these structural problems.

The arguments presented by Prof Duncan are, in my view, based on a misconception about the nature of the South African Constitution. As I see it, there are at least two problems with the argument presented by Prof Duncan. First, she seems to suggest that the Constitution is somehow at least partly to blame for the fact that the ANC government has not shown any appetite for revisiting the back room deals about the structure of the South African economy – deals reached between the ANC and white capital before the first democratic election in 1994. This ignores the fact that the ANC government has not effected radical change because the new political elite is benefiting just as much from this pre-1994 deal as those white capitalists who struck the deal with them.

Second, she fails to point to those provisions of the Constitution that supposedly give it the profoundly conservative character that she talks about. It is also not clear what aspects of the Constitution she is referring to when she argues that the document has limited the democratic form and content of the South African constitutional order. The only constitutional provision mentioned in the article is the property clause, which she seems to think requires the state to follow a willing buyer willing seller approach to land reform — something the property clause decidedly does not do.

It seems to me Prof Duncan is partly blaming the Constitution for the failures by the ANC government to address the fundamental structural inequalities in our economy — although, to be fair, she does admit that the ANC government should also carry some blame for these failures.

Of course, it must be conceded that the Constitution does contain a property clause which requires just and equitable compensation to be paid to anyone whose property is expropriated to address past land dispossession and to effect land reform. Just and equitable compensation does NOT, however, require the state to follow a willing buyer willing seller policy. That policy was a deliberate policy choice of the ANC government not demanded by the Constitution. Moreover, the Constitution states that the price to be paid must reflect an equitable balance between the public interest and the interests of those affected, having regard to all relevant circumstances, including:

  •  the current use of the property;
  • the history of the acquisition and use of the property;
  • the market value of the property;
  • the extent of direct state investment and subsidy in the acquisition and beneficial capital improvement of the property; and
  • the purpose of the expropriation.

A far more radical land reform programme which would allow for the expropriation of unproductive land and would specifically target land which formed the subject of forced removals over the last 50 years of apartheid, while taking into account the need for South Africa to maintain food security, would be admissible in terms of our Constitution. It is not the fault of the property clause that this has not happened.

Although the state is required to pay compensation for all expropriated land, this compensation does not have to equate to the market value of the property and can be far below the market value, depending on the other relevant factors. The fact is that the land reform programme has been a dismal failure so far because the government has stuck to the absurd willing buyer willing seller policy and because it has failed to put structures and mechanism in place to ensure that those who benefit from land redistribution are assisted either to work the land productively or to make sustainable use of the property in some other way.

One of the major arguments used by the left against a constitutional order in which the Constitution is supreme and in which a Bill of Rights is enshrined to protect the rights of everyone, is that it leaves untouched the private wealth and power of those whose actions often far more decisively affect the lives of the unemployed and the working poor. In such a system, so the argument goes, radical structural transformation of the social and economic system is impossible because private wealth and power is protected by the Bill of Rights, but private institutions and individuals who wield this enormous power has no obligation in terms of that Bill of Rights to respect the rights of the marginal, the vulnerable and the poor.

The South African Constitution is different, as it contains some radical provisions that acknowledge the fact that private power is a major stumbling block in transforming the economy and in creating a more egalitarian society. Thus, many of the provisions of the Bill of Rights also apply to private institutions (companies like De Beers; Old Mutual; Anglo-American; SA Breweries and those owned by Patrice Motsepe) and individuals, while section 39(2) imposes an obligation on the courts to develop the common law and customary law and to interpret legislation to bring it in line with the spirit purport and objects of the Bill of Rights. Often private law rules benefit the powerful by assuming that they are engaging with the less powerful in society on equal terms. Our Constitution commands the judiciary to develop private law rules to take account of this (something, admittedly, that many judges — also those appointed as so called “transformation judges” appointed by the ANC dominated JSC — are often reluctant to do).

And the spirit, purport and objects of the Bill of Rights are fundamentally democratic and transformative. It places a positive duty on the state to take steps that would “achieve equality” (making use of racially based redress measures in appropriate circumstances); that would provide more people progressively with better access to housing, health care, social services, water and electricity; and that would protect the environment. It also places a duty on the state to provide anyone with basic education and to do so in an equitable manner (as the right to education must be read in conjunction with the right to equality).

The fact that the government of the day decided to leave the schooling system largely untouched, retaining pockets of excellence in suburban schools, while not addressing (or only addressing around the margins) the poor schooling received by learners in many township schools, was a policy choice not mandated by the Constitution. In fact, an argument could be made that a proper legal challenge might well result in a finding that the present schooling system (a system which benefits the children of the old and new elites, including the children of Cabinet Ministers) and the way it is being funded is unconstitutional.

One of my students is doing fascinating research on the manner in which teachers are funded by the Department of Education and has concluded that the funding model used by the Department is deeply flawed. This is because it has had the effect of ensuring that better performing and better qualified teachers remain in the suburban schools where they teach the children of the old and new elite, all while a majority of South African children receive a substandard education from often badly trained and unmotivated teachers. The Constitution may well be invoked to challenge this system and it definitely will not stand in the way of a radical overhaul of the system — just as it will not stand in the way of the introduction of a National Health Insurance scheme.

It must be conceded that the Constitution may be faulted for adopting an electoral system that bestows far too much power on political party leaders and bureaucrats and far too little power on ordinary citizens, allowing for an often arrogant and technocratic approach to governance encapsulated by the discourse of “service delivery”. Given the racialised nature of support for political parties, the (now slightly fading) moral authority of the governing party, the centralising and sometimes almost Stalinist tendencies of some factions within the ruling party, and the dominance of a discourse which endorses the need for a strong and less than fully democratic state (purportedly to better effect social and economic change in South Africa), it is not clear, however, that another electoral system would have really led to the kind of grassroots democracy that many of us yearn for.

The Constitutional Court has not been unaware of these problems and have developed interesting legal avenues to try and enhance the democratic nature of the way we are governed. In social and economic rights cases the court has stated that for the government to act reasonably (and hence constitutionally) when it take steps to realise the social and economic rights contained in the Constitution, it has a constitutional duty meaningfully to engage with the affected communities — the so called beneficiaries of “Service delivery” and “development”. (This failure to consult with the community affected by an attempt at “development” was one of the reasons why the Cape High Court found that the City of Cape Town had acted unconstitutionally when it built open toilets for the residents of Makhaza.)

Of course, I am not arguing that the Constitution can or will be used in order to fully and decisively address the structural social and economic inequalities in our society. The state is supposed to do that — within the disciplining boundaries of the Constitution. The Constitution can be used by social movements and political activists as well as lawyers to prod the state along and to force the state to act in a less technocratic and heartless manner or to engage in a far more democratic manner with citizens when it does so. There are limits to what the law and our courts can be expected to achieve.

But to argue that the Constitution is deeply conservative and hence that even if the ANC government wanted to it would not have been able to implement radical policies to begin to address the social and economic inequalities in our society  because of constraints placed on it by the Constitution, seems to me to over egg the pudding just slightly.

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