Africa’s constitutions fail to deliver on their promise

Without strong civil society across sectors and interrogation of broader socio-economic policies, the promise of our constitution will remain outside of the grasp of most people.

09 September 2013: Friday’s Constitution Building in Africa Conference brought a range of leaders and scholars from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Sudan and Nigeria amongst others. This conference organised by the Community Law Centre housed at the University of the Western Cape attracted over three hundred delegates from across Africa.

This year marks 20 years since the implementation of South Africa’s Interim Constitution. And this is linked to the development of Constitutions across the Continent over the past 3 decades. But many of our Constitutions are failing to deliver on their promise of social justice, transformation and gender equality.

A strong message from the Conference is that economic transformation is not held within Constitutions. “The Constitution is not the answer for all societal ills, it doesn’t solve inequality,” stated Prof Nico Steytler, “what it does is to provide values and direction in terms of which government and society must work to address these inequalities.” Addressing poverty is dependent on the policies of government.

Dr. Mufamadi recognised that the expectation of the people of South Africa for “socio-economic turnaround has not been met” he indicated that this was “due to structural factors and not the result of policy decisions”.

Strong civil society and active citizens make a difference. “Democracy does not depend on the Constitution or the Courts, its real implementation comes through claims made by the people,” said Steytler. This was further emphasised by Mr Valli Moosa who indicated that “The ultimate guarantor of democracy is the people.”

“20 years into our democracy, with a number of laws being passed that increase state control, this is the moment in South Africa for civil society to rally,” said Samantha Waterhouse, Parliamentary Programme Coordinator at the CLC.

Compromise is a strong element of Constitution development processes. Tensions between political parties and between governments and the people where a strong theme at the conference. In particular the tension between the voice of people and the interests of political parties in developing and implementing Constitutions. “The Consultations in Zimbabwe were weak filled with disruptions and party games” Tobias Guzura Senior Lecturer from Zimbabwe Open University.

The failure of our Constitutions to bring about transformation in women’s lives was a major theme throughout the conference; Constitutions often focus on women’s participation in leadership but fail to address women’s lived experiences.

Without strong civil society across sectors and interrogation of broader socio-economic policies, the promise of our constitution will remain outside of the grasp of most people.

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About: The Community Law Centre
The Community Law Centre is founded on the belief that constitutional orders must promote good governance, socio-economic development and the protection of the rights of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. Through engaged research, engaged teaching and advocacy, the Centre supports processes in South Africa and the region to build inclusive, resilient states that are accountable to citizens and responsive to human rights. The Centre aims to be the leading think tank on multi-level governance and human rights in Africa.

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