Human Rights and Citizenship in Post-Apartheid South Africa

By Williams, John J. | Critical Arts, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Human Rights and Citizenship in Post-Apartheid South Africa


Williams, John J., Critical Arts


Abstract

The South African constitutional discourse is the foundational agency that produces citizenship, centring subjectivity as a relational engagement with the existential reality of the everyday life of ordinary people. In this paper, however, it is pointed out that in terms of the constitutional provisions, the nature of inter-subjectivity, i.e. subject-to-subject relations, orients and indeed frames relations of power undergirding citizenship. It is furthermore argued that though the conceptual parameters of citizenship are often nebulous, as a discursive referent, however, it informs both the basis and dimensions of a constitutional democracy, such as obtained in post-apartheid South Africa. Even so, it would appear that the construction of a discourse of change and the effective transformation/elimination of oppressive/exploitative practices in the every day life of ordinary people are fraught with a range of structural slippages and incidents of institutional inertia. In this regard, the paper highlights several issues: First, the dominant discourse on the new South Africa is predicated upon a declarative citizenship, not an assertive citizenship, in that elected officials (presumably) representing the citizenry declare the noble ideals of an inclusive society by representing their specific constituencies in all spheres of government, as opposed to the electorate participating directly at all levels of decision-making in all spheres of government. Second, citizenship as ensconced in the Constitution is based on the premise that all humans have equal access to rights, in contradistinction to the prevailing reality that only those with financial wherewithal can have their rights enforced; even in cases where socio-economic rights have been successfully defended in a Court of Law such as in the case of Grootboom vs. SA State (1999). In this instance though, rights to adequate service delivery were not followed through by compelling local authorities to provide quality, sustainable services to affected communities in whose favour the Court ruled. This means, amongst other things, that institutional defiance militates against citizenship and also thwarts attempts to create a meaningful everyday life for `ordinary' people at grassroots level.

Introduction

If the lack of human rights (hence rights) in apartheid South Africa was a unifying cause of the struggle against institutionalised racism then, in the democratic order since 1994, the interpretation and safeguarding of such rights has become a cause celebre in the construction and promotion of an inclusive citizenship. Indeed the Constitution of South Africa, Act 108, provides a Bill of Rights, entrenching and affirming democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom. It specifically proscribes discriminatory practices based on race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social background, colour or sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth (RSA, 1996). The foregoing constitutional provisions imply that a new citizenship has to be forged in a post-apartheid South Africa. Even so, as borne out by the work of the South African Human Rights Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, amongst others, the construction of such a new citizenship, however, appears to be a daunting task as the politics of identity, the multidimensionality of development and the trajectory of social change seem to complicate both the form and substance of overall transformation of the South African society (Simpson, 1994; Lenta, 1996; Bond, 2000). Accordingly, in this paper it is argued that citizenship is a thought-experiment with survival-value especially in a country, such as South Africa, that is in transition to a more democratic and thus egalitarian society--perhaps the singular most important intent/feature of the Bill of Rights enshrined in the Constitution. Indeed, in the South African case, the constitutional discourse is the foundational agency that produces the subject, centring subjectivity as a relational engagement with the existential reality of the everyday life of ordinary people. …

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