Kader Asmal, Professor Extraordinary

Professor Kader Asmal

Professor Kader Asmal addresses the Public Dialogue

Let me start by saying that this topic has much more to do with life than simply a dialogue on the ‘Chapter Nine’ institutions. It’s much more fundamental. It has to do with the bodies South Africa has elevated to constitutional status, and the role they play in ensuring that people don’t consider themselves ‘outsiders.’ What we are talking about is a democratic deficit.

In some countries, the democratic deficit results in a frontal assault on civil liberties. The democratic deficit in South Africa is within a specific context. I remember an extraordinary statement that Nelson Mandela once made, over 50 years ago, about treating people like objects – you do things to objects. Now, we must recognise that every person is a subject with a capacity to change his or her environment. In our young democracy, how do we ensure that the individual is not an outsider, and finds his or her worth together with others?

Throughout my whole life I have witnessed mobilisation, wherein people have taken their destiny into their own hands. In 1946, hundreds of Indian women faced the baton charges of the police in opposition to racial group areas. During the Defiance Campaign, more than eight thousand people faced imprisonment – I saw them marching through my own small town, which politicised me. Thousands of people canvassed around the Freedom Charter, and later the founding of the UDF.  And then, the battle to make apartheid ungovernable.

We have lost the élan, the remarkable mood and the special perspective we had in 1994. Now, the important thing is what we do with the fruit of our mobilisation – our representative government.

We don’t have the direct democracy of the Greeks or the Romans, which limited governance to a few hundred people and excluded most. Dr Mamphela Ramphele has argued that sovereignty rests with the citizen, but I suggest that it does not – otherwise, we would have capital punishment, no abortion rights, no real equality and more xenophobia.

In South Africa, sovereignty rests with the Constitution. Citizens are not sovereign, neither are they outsiders, as the constitution entrenches their rights. Columnist Jabulani Sikhakhane has called the presidential hotline a direct assault on popular participation, because citizens are treated as victims. After apartheid, the proudest thing we have is our treatment as citizens, and that’s why I see the right to dignity as the most important constitutional value.

What we need is more accountability and accessibility, and to be more rigorous. Oversight must be conducted in a way to ensure that government’s actions satisfy people’s trust. One of apartheid’s biggest crimes of apartheid was geographic separation, and we still can’t reach each other.  The challenge to government, and all of us, is to instill a sense of belonging and with shared goals. Tackling  poor delivery, is not just about water and sanitation, or housing or jobs, it’s a sense that what people say and do which matters and the extent to which we listen.

The path to a peaceful and prosperous society is through the unleashing of the energy of citizens. The Preamble to the Constitution says that we must free the potential of our people. No development can therefore be sustainable unless it involves those who stand to benefit from it.

We know from our own struggle that apartheid said, ‘we will decide for you, one way or another.’ So, we owe it to all those who sacrificed so much to enjoy this freedom, to work towards a true constitutional democracy – not the people’s democracy, as we believed 25 years ago, which would have resulted in a one-party state, but a constitutional democracy, in which the citizens freely exercise their rights and express their desires and needs freely and where they are treated with dignity.

Kader Asmal is Professor Extraordinary at the University of the Western Cape.


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