Warped Public Discourses Pose Threat to Our Hard-Won Human Rights Gains

Cape Times (South Africa), March 13, 2008 | Go to article overview

Warped Public Discourses Pose Threat to Our Hard-Won Human Rights Gains


Strange how politicians invoke "populism" when it suits them.

Recently, Jacob Zuma seemed to support the idea of a referendum on the reinstatement of the death penalty. These comments alarmed some people and perhaps provided a sense of hope to those who believe the state should, in these days of rampant crime and violence, have the right to take a life.

Whatever Zuma's pronouncements and his apparent keenness to start a debate on the issue, the death penalty is unconstitutional. Predictably, Zuma back-tracked when he was challenged.

Entrenching the culture of human rights (even among those in power), which the constitution envisages, therefore seems to remain somewhat elusive.

The constitution-making process was probably one of South Africa's most inclusive processes, in which citizens from all over the country participated by making submissions on which rights should be enshrined in the constitution.

The constitution is intended to be deeply transformative, and represents South Africa's dual attempts to overcome its past and deal with its present, incorporating as it does a panoply of rights including, boldly, socio-economic rights.

It bears testimony to the over-whelming optimism of those early years of our democracy, for the constitution was envisaged as the key instrument with which to create a society embracing equality and dignity. Progress has been made as regards socio-economic delivery, and, for millions, life post-1994 has improved significantly on the basis of government's interventions.

The Constitutional Court has made a number of bold decisions on the entrenchment of socio-economic rights, such as the famous right-to-housing case (Grootboom) and the right-to-healthcare case (Treatment Action Campaign).

Important as substantive equality is, it is also evident that the drafters of the constitution envisaged that it be about more than this. At its very heart, it sets out the core values of our society. South Africa faces a continuing struggle to embed the dignity and respect central to ubuntu, which underpins the constitution.

The constitutional framework which ensures our civil and political rights is often taken for granted, however. South Africa remains very far from the ideal of having strong democratic institutions with an embedded culture of accountability and robustness.

It is for this reason that some of the public discourse surrounding, not only human rights, but also the constitutional architecture of our democracy (for example, an independent judiciary and an independent National Prosecuting Authority) and concepts such as the rule of law, provide reason for discomfort. …

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Warped Public Discourses Pose Threat to Our Hard-Won Human Rights Gains
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