IN AN admittedly hard-hitting piece, former anti-apartheid activist Jay Naidoo tackles issues of good governance, which he says is our right, not a privilege.
“Our demands for fundamental liberties, encompassing human, labour, gender, sexual orientation, community and land rights” he says “are met by political elites’ concerted push to strangle citizen action through laws, policies, financial restrictions, intimidation and outright violence.”
Typically, Naidoo, like so many activists drawn into the fold of the African National Congress — a party formation which has failed miserably to transform South Africa into an exemplar of good governance — resorts to homilies on the simplistic return to the “rule of law”. The self-same mantra deployed by the security establishment and party insiders targeting students, unleashing violence which he notably criticises, as does commentator Eusebius McKaiser, who warns of the abuse of state security against overzealous students.
Coming twenty years in the aftermath and the anniversary year of the signing into law of the foundation document of the nation — our Bill of Rights — the ‘rule of law’ is anything but. Rather law, and by that I don’t mean all law, has turned into the ‘law of rules’, and thus constitutionalism, has produced nothing more valuable than legal contortionism — a byzantine, professional and well-heeled legal bureaucracy dependent on a superabundance of legal fees, has acted to deny us ordinary citizens our rights — impinging on access to the law, whilst also curbing fundamental freedoms, such as the right to assembly.
As I write this, and speaking as an active participant in the 1987 student revolt against apartheid, I have yet to receive any recognition from Minister Michael Masutha of my right to an attorney at state expense in a TRC-related case (EC19/2015). I therefore have no hesitation in endorsing the campus unrest, reminiscent as it is of the spirit of 1987.
Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” explains why civil disobedience is sometimes necessary to bring light to an unjust law. Similarly, our founder, Nelson Mandela advocated civil disobedience against the unjust laws of the apartheid state. He would probably look on in horror at the growing militarisation of our nation’s campuses, and unlike Naidoo, exhort students to continue their protest action.
So no Mr Naidoo, your easy prescriptions and reliance on NGO statistics are better left to former apartheid functionaries. After twenty years of abuse, we really don’t want your ‘rule of law’, any more than an alcoholic desires a hangover, and surely not each and every law out there.
What we do want, rather and better formulated here, is a citizen’s law. A common legal dispensation which distances itself from the apartheid codex and racist decrees of the past. A common law which recognises that the Bill of Rights is not some ‘carrot on a stick’, nor a two decade long entitlement programme for legal professionals.
And certainly not a mere document serving the sole purpose of cappuccino drinking, robed solicitors earning inflated fees at the Cape bar, nor a get rich quick scheme for portly barristers paying off their third mortgages on holiday homes at Plettenberg Bay, while dining fatuously on sushi and kobe beef, reading De Rebus in the Mall. No Mr Naidoo, the Bill of Rights should rather be considered the very beginning of our law.
Until students return to classes, until citizens themselves are returned to the legal system, as equal partners, fully emancipated and possessed of equal rights, and until the role of lay assessors is expanded, there will be calls to either reform the judiciary, or remove its stifling and overbearing colonial influence from society altogether. One has merely to examine South Africa’s corrupt proxy judge system in which any sizeable law firm is able to dish up an attorney to act on the bench in favour of his or her client, to realise that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, to use a bardic phrase.
In its special hearings into the role of the legal community the TRC found: “part of the reason for the longevity of apartheid was the superficial adherence to ‘rule by law’ by the National Party (NP), whose leaders craved the aura of legitimacy that ‘the law’ bestowed on their harsh injustice.”
The crisis of legitimacy in which South Africa’s legal institutions find themselves today, where ordinary citizens are for the most part excluded, disempowered, often ignored, is both a tragedy and a farce, with the result that law libraries burn on a regular basis, while persons such as Naidoo resort to the self-same platitudes and pseudo-scientific aphorisms associated with the apartheid regime.
Now is the time to revisit our nation’s foundation stone, the Bill of Rights and its democratic values. To reboot the TRC process, to put an end to impunity and to examine the struggle record, and to free students from the scourge of fees once and for all. It is not the time for ideological dissertations that lead nowhere except back to PW Botha, BJ Vorster and HF Verwoerd.