The government’s official statement on Freedom Day calls on South Africans to ‘pull together’ over the coming weeks and months to continue the fight against COVID-19. Further, the statement acknowledges that inequality, poverty and unemployment remain the most glaring impediments to South Africa’s goal of national unity and social cohesion. However, the statement fails to acknowledge the government’s own role in impeding the realisation of the goals of our Constitution.
The Bill of Rights as set out in our Constitution guarantee South African citizens certain rights, and binds the government to realise, protect and promote these rights. One example is the right to have access to adequate housing as per section 26(1) of the Constitution. Further, section 26(2) obliges the state to ‘take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right.’ Access to adequate housing has been an issue that has been largely unaddressed in democratic South Africa. While the issue of housing has been bad to begin with, it appears to be worsening as one sees the growing number of tent cities, particularly in the Western Cape. Driving around Cape Town’s high-income areas such as Green Point and Sea Point, one is bombarded with the visual of clusters of tents huddled between opulent high-rise buildings. Such imagery is reflective of the massive inequality experienced amongst South Africans.
The Bill of Rights also promises the right to be free from all forms of violence (section 12(1)(c)) and yet the country is persistently plagued by violence in the form of crime, gangsterism and gender-based violence. The government has pledged their commitment to address these issues, particularly GBV, and yet there has been no improvement in the lives and safety of our people and especially our women.
The failure of the realisation of our constitutional rights may be linked to not only government neglect, but also to the government’s active contribution to these socio-economic problems. Government has a track record of outright stealing the funds and resources intended to address these issues. In an article published by the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa, Paul Hoffman refers to our democracy as a ‘kleptocracy’, a state governed by thieves. Hoffman goes further to state that a working definition of corruption is “theft from the poor” and that those involved in corruption pocket funds and other resources intended to help the poor and vulnerable members of society. The government’s continual failure since 1994 to deliver on the promises of the Constitution is in part due to the serious corruption plaguing our government. Between 2014 and 2019, South Africa lost a terrifying R1.3 trillion rand to corruption. This money was meant to feed our people, provide housing, health care, adequate education and basic resources like electricity and water. We as citizens, particularly the poor, bear the brunt of the consequences of government incompetence and corruption.
The extent to which our constitutional rights are realised ought to be used as a measure of our freedom on this Freedom Day. In this respect, just how ‘free’ are we in democratic South Africa?
By Traci Hurling