By Trevor Manuel
The constitution provides the intent, but the actual task of nation-building rests on each of our shoulders, says Trevor Manuel.
Cape Town – As we approach the 20th year of our democracy, the question that confronts us as South Africans is whether we have given effect to the ideals of human rights that underpin our constitution. We must ask what we are doing today to guarantee the well-being and happiness of our future generations.
The principles of our constitution embody all that we fought for to achieve our democracy and serve to define us as South Africans beyond the obvious.
It is this essential collective, our soul – which, although it is hard to define, but we know instinctively – to which our former president, Nelson Mandela, referred when he called upon us to invoke an “RDP of the soul”.
As we give expression and effect to the principles and the very essence of our constitution, we must proceed responsibly, consciously and interactively. We must be mindful of the fact that the future is not preordained, it must be worked at diligently and selflessly.
The greatness of our constitution is precisely that its idealism is a consequence of the type of sacrifice that so many people made to deliver democracy.
Who is responsible for giving effect to these hard-won principles?
As an obvious starting point, the state has a definite role to play in achieving the ideals of our constitution. We can, and indeed, should hold
the state responsible for those rights articulated in the constitution. But if that is all that we need for a culture of rights, then life will surely be about only that which can be measured – in the simplest of terms.
There is a much bigger part that we need to focus our attention on. It starts with asking why it seems that so few of us remember and respect the values of our constitution.
It asks why we are not more vigorously respectful of the laws that we have passed, laws designed to affirm rights and create mutual responsibilities. When and why have we stopped caring for ourselves, for each other and for our environment?
I would contend that what is missing is that we have not committed to collectively building and uniting that sense of national being, of caring about the elevation of the intangible – our collective soul.
So, yes, we have a constitution, and we remember the heroes and heroines that helped create our democracy, but we have not paused to reflect on what will fuel the process towards “healing of the divisions of the past”, or to “establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights” as the constitution proclaims.
Perhaps we are too blasé about our constitution; we appreciate the meaning and the intent, but do not devote nearly enough time to considering the implementation of it or the agency that is required of us, individually and collectively.
It seemed that when democracy was entrenched with the adoption of the constitution, some 25 months after the first elections, there appeared to be the demobilisation of civil society.
It was not announced, nor was it a cataclysmic act; over time it simply changed from the form that we knew. It raises the important question of whether the adoption of the constitution was the high-water-mark of our nation’s history, or one of the important milestones in the progress towards its fulfilment.
Our dream will remain deferred, perhaps even forever, unless we take responsibility for our future and destiny. The constitution provides the intent and the foundation of nationhood, but the actual task of nation-building rests on each of our shoulders.
It is a process that will fail if we do not generate leaders who take ownership and responsibility. The promise of our constitution is to build a single nation, “united in our diversity”, and caring in its conduct.
Progress in society is never linear and the lack of attention to the detail of implementation is likely to result in neglect – at times development may stall. There is even the risk that we may forget to look back on the path this young nation has traversed, and believe that we do not need the vision provided by the values that we should hold dear.
For democracy to flourish, there has to be a strong, active and vocal non-government sector, frequently interacting with a responsive government. We have achieved so much in the context of a hostile and exclusive state previously, how much more should be expected when we have a government of the people?
The German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm accurately described the possibility of human agency towards change. Change is possible, he wrote, when:
* We are suffering and we are aware that we are.
* We recognise the origin of our ill-being.
* We recognise that there is a way of overcoming our ill-being.
* We accept that in order to overcome our ill-being we have to follow certain norms for living and change our present practice of life.
These are the elements that drove a generation of leaders into exile, struggle and sacrifice.
These are the elements that would drive someone like Father Michael Lapsley% to ask “What are my deepest values? What do I believe in?” and to know that he was prepared to die for the cause of liberation.
Those who suffered the most extreme persecution and violence have turned their and our destiny towards reconciliation, generosity of spirit and
not to revenge or retribution.
They understood that as much as it was necessary to break down systems that oppress, there was a greater need to build in its place a more just, equitable society.
It is this rebuilding that requires of us a deep commitment, focus and daring to build the society that we desire for ourselves and for those who come after us. We cannot sit back and expect the state to validate us or to define our destiny and the prosperity of future generations.
Part of looking at agency is to recall, reclaim and reinvigorate the values that we hold dear. An important part of the identity of our collective soul is our belief in the value of ubuntu.
Perhaps we should remind ourselves of the strength of this value for the healing of our soul and reclaim it to drive our commitment to build the society we desire.
This will not be an easy path and we must be aware of the pitfalls. How do we express ourselves against this notion of crude accumulation of wealth at all costs that currently exists?
Perhaps, what we observe around us confirms that indeed, “the love of money is the root of all evil”. It has destroyed individuals who had previously built strong reputations. It is destroying organisations and damaging communities. It must be halted, and only the people and organisations that care and are prepared to demonstrate their commitment can reclaim that space.
We must know that we can recapture this spirit again. South Africa can rise again, as a nation committed not to the wealthiest and strongest among us, but to those who need solidarity the most. This is the value of that which is entrenched in our constitution.
This is our calling to “Improve the quality of life of all citizens and to free the potential of each person.”
How, then, do we heal our nation?
Our dream, our idealism, that which helps make up our collective soul – finds great expression in our constitution. How we give effect to it in our lived world must proceed from the question that asks what we, as the collective and as individuals, are prepared to commit to in order to guarantee the well-being and happiness of our future generations.
% Quote from Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer by Fr Michael Lapsley SSM with Stephen Karakashian (Struik).