The Q&A that followed the delivery of the sixth annual Frederik van Zyl Slabbert Honorary Lecture, hosted at Stellenbosch University recently, was an often tense session, highlighted by impassioned questions and declarations on “disruptive politics" and student protests.
But one question and response perhaps best summed up the message of the preceding lecture. That question was whether there is truly anything worth celebrating about the South African Constitution when, twenty-plus years into a democracy, the country is plagued by and its people divided by poverty and deepening inequality.
It had become almost fashionable to question the country's negotiated settlement of 1994 and its Constitution, Judith February, senior research associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) (as well as lawyer and columnist), had argued in her lecture. Even the ruling ANC, which had been central to its drafting, noted February, have increasingly maligned and criticised the Constitution, claiming it has weakened the executive. (The implication, she said, was that the judiciary had become too powerful for the party, concerned about the slew of charges brought against the President.)
So, too, in the student protests of the past years, the Constitution had been “scapegoated" as a tool to protect white interests while compromising the welfare of black people, February continued.
But that we have strayed so far from the ideals for its implementation and for accountability from our leaders, and that inequality has worsened, is not the fault of the Constitution, February argued. “It has not failed us in providing the space for transformation and the guidelines for a state that is accountable," she said.
For her the Constitution, said February, is the framework around which everything else pivots. “To me it remains the lodestar, the aspirational document our founding fathers and mothers intended."
But if the ANC is unable or willing to fix the country's problems, then citizens – “divided as we are" – must do so, insisted February. And it is not too late to do so, she said.
To rebuild our democracy in a post-Zuma world, February proposed, would require six things. One: “Education, education, education", and building a culture of learning and enquiry. Two: A widespread and thorough Constitutional education. Three: A culture of accountability. Four: A free and independent media. Five: Leadership that inspires and respects the rule of law. And six: An active and engaged citizenship.
In 1987, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert had shared some cautionary but hopeful words of a deeply divided South Africa – “waiting to become, a hovering society" – in the short series of Tanner Lectures on Human Values he had delivered at Oxford University. Somehow those observations, made 30 years ago, still seem to resonate with the South Africa of 2017, February had noted early in her lecture.
But the aspirations for the country lie in the Constitution, she argued. “What are we celebrating?" she responded to the question posed in the Q&A. “Well, we're celebrating…the right to protest. If we didn't have a democracy, if we didn't have a Constitution, students wouldn't be able to protest. They'd be in prison for that," she said.
The Constitution makes a gathering such as the Van Zyl Slabbert Lecture possible, February added. “It provides a framework, a guide and a space for us to operate and to simply be. That's what it allows us to be."
The Frederik van Zyl Slabbert Honorary Lecture is hosted by Stellenbosch University's Frederik van Zyl Slabbert (FVZS) Institute for Student Leadership Development, with the financial support of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. The goal of the lecture series is to stimulate critical and challenging conversations about our country and continent, taking its cue from the late Dr Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, a respected politician, business leader, critical thinker and former Chancellor of Stellenbosch University.
Article by Morgan Morris