Quote of the week

An ‘important purpose of section 34 [of the Constitution] is to guarantee the protection of the judicial process to persons who have disputes that can be resolved by law’ and that the right of access to court is ‘foundational to the stability of an orderly society. It ensures the peaceful, regulated and institutionalised mechanisms to resolve disputes, without resorting to self-help. The right of access to court is a bulwark against vigilantism, and the chaos and anarchy which it causes. Construed in this context of the rule of law and the principle against self-help in particular, access to court is indeed of cardinal importance’.The right guaranteed s34 would be rendered meaningless if court orders could be ignored with impunity:the underlying purposes of the right — and particularly that of avoidance of self-help — would be undermined if litigants could decide which orders they wished to obey and which they wished to ignore.

Plasket AJ
Victoria Park Ratepayers' Association v Greyvenouw CC and others (511/03) [2003] ZAECHC 19 (11 April 2003)
21 November 2006

Democracy can be such a bother

The problem with a constitutional democracy is, of course, that it provides people with a reasonable amount of freedom to do and say what they want.

In a democracy the pesky members of the media report on the improprieties of politicians (both the proven and rumoured variety) without having to fear imprisonment, assassination or closure of their newspaper.

If one is a politician – the President of the country or the head of the Police, say – living in a democracy can be quite a bother. Stuff reported in the media becomes part of the political reality and must be addressed, otherwise voters will inevitably assume that the media reports are correct.

President Thabo Mbeki does not seem to get this last point.

He is reported to have told religious leaders yesterday that they should trust him to do the right thing on Jackie Selebi and added that he did not want Selebi to be tried by the media.

If he has information clearing Mr Selebi’s name he should let us know what it is. He can call a press conference this afternoon and allow journalists to drill him, like they do in the UK and the USA.

By asking us to trust him because he knows best, President Mbeki is acting in a patronising and profoundly disrespectful way.

There is, of course, a vast difference between being convicted of a crime in a court of law, and merely acting in an unwise and suspicious manner. It is therefore disingenuous to say that Selebi is being tried by the media merely because the media is reporting on the fact that he is friends with an alleged mafia boss arrested for murder.

What the media is doing is fulfilling its appointed role in a democracy, namely to inform the public about important matters of national concern.

The Police Commissioner and the President are accountable to us – the people – and they therefore have a duty to respond openly and transparently to this new reality created by news reports. If they don’t, we have a right to assume that they have something to hide.

Yes, it’s a nuisance. Yes, it may tarnish Mr Selebi’s name. Yes, reporting can be sensationalistic. But that is the price to pay for a free press and a vibrant democracy.

Because we live in a democracy we do not have to trust our politicians. We have a right to demand answers and if those answers don’t come, we have a right to fire those in charge.

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