Our Constitution, the buffeted staffrider of the world?

By: Ayabonga Cawe, Economic Justice Programme Manager

‘Patient because history is on their side, these masses do not despair because today the weather is bad. Nor do they turn triumphalist when, tomorrow, the sun shines.

Whatever the circumstances they have lived through and because of that experience, they are determined to define for themselves who they are and who they should be.

We are assembled here today to mark their victory in acquiring and exercising their right to formulate their own definition of what it means to be African’

There is something that Thabo Mbeki says in these words, uttered at the formal adoption of the 1996 Constitution by the National Assembly twenty years ago, that seldom attracts the same fanfare as other passages of his speech. It is a reference to the circumstances that the masses, who have neither given themselves to despondency or triumphalism, have experienced and continue to experience. This reference shares a sentence with the determination of these masses to ‘define for themselves who they are and who they should be,’ evidence to a contentious injunction implied by his speech. Having lived through the dehumanizing experience of colonialism and Apartheid, our people continue to fight to define for themselves who they are and what they ought to be. These experiences may not warrant as much media attention as the political football that the Constitution has become of late. Nor do these experiences matter to us as much as transgressions or violations of the Constitution by our leaders. Is it not a daily violation of the Constitution that the children of ‘Africans’ continue to learn under trees and defecate in toilets that occasionally flush them to heaven? My journalist friends tell me, that the obvious is not newsworthy or sensational enough.

The late South African writer and essayist, Lewis Nkosi, said for him great writing is about ‘making words become ‘flesh’’. Said differently, words are only ink on a page unless they make tangible physically, materially and otherwise, the spirit conveyed. It was the responsibility of the drafters and wordsmiths like Mbeki, to give us the words, but the provision of the ‘flesh’ was our collective responsibility. How have we fared in this historically given task? Frankly, we have failed, and the reason largely rests with the understanding that ‘giving flesh’ to the injunctions of the Constitution is a difficult political and economic project, moreover it is a jurisprudential one. It is a task undertaken in a society governed by a landscape of political trade-offs in an inherited set of institutions and systems with entrenched values. Values which have never placed any premium on the lived experience of the black people who have been at the receiving end of its culture of impoverishment alongside persistent enrichment.

It often seems that there are two Constitutions; the liberating one affirming the dignity and humanity of all, and one employed to dismantle the pursuit of those ends. One easily summoned when Zuma needs to fall, is summoned as easily to champion ‘willing buyer, willing seller’. Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke tells us that the Constitution does not mention that phrase nor the logic behind it. It is indeed, a Constitution, which in ‘flesh’, is brilliant in double speak. We must provide all with shelter we say, except those who brave the elements to meet their death at the refusal by security guards, while waiting at the gate of an ailing public hospital? It is a Constitution elusive to the brother who digs in the trash, photo-bombing a jovial picture of Gareth Cliff and Dali Mpofu on their way to seek ‘redress’ and justice. More importantly, it is a Constitution despite its progressive ‘spirit’, is often reliant on the unending patience of the masses to embrace its ‘flesh’. Patient because history is on their side, these masses do not despair because today the weather is bad. Nor do they turn triumphalist when, tomorrow, the sun shines.

After twenty years, we realise that a Constitution is not developed by strongly worded opinion pieces in its defence, or in litigation at its apex court. Its development, or lack thereof, is largely dependent on the strength of its ability to become a weapon in the hand of those pursuing social justice. Its relevance, as we reflect, is measured by its ability to make ‘flesh’ of the aspirations of the toiling masses, whose belief in history as their canvas, belies their current dehumanization. It matters not if the Constitution is viewed as a constraining hurdle or a treatise of possibility, it remains the minimum programme towards the achievement of an inclusive and egalitarian society emerging out of negotiation and compromise. Somewhere in the midst of the struggles for roads, water and free education, we see the Constitution as the blueprint of a decisive stage in age-old history of resistance. Through the black smog of the fires of Vhuwani, we see the dream affirmed and denied; pursued and at times left unattended. From the ashes of the hollow ideological victory that the Constitution has proven to be for the masses, we see the duplicity of a guiding living document whose ‘flesh’ is to be made, all 200 or so pages of it.

Staffriding train surfer of the world

Guest of many banquets

Buffeted by the world

To return to the enamel plate

That you call home

Borrowed by the lender

Who had no interest

To return it in junk

Or investment grade I don’t remember

Long before

You hijacked the skies

And shared your loot with creatures of the sea

Who carried fish knives to the grave

Guest of many banquets

Recipient of many accolades


To his torn Chuck Taylor surfboard

They say water and electricity don’t meet

That’s why you duck the power line

To screams of the world

You are a ‘miracle’

To the tears of home you are the

Staffriding train surfer of the world