170816. The picture of the Constitution Hill, Johannesburg. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko 883
170816. The picture of the Constitution Hill, Johannesburg. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko 883

Eroding constitutional rights early signs of a new dictatorship

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 5, 2021

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OPINION: No leader, however rich, powerful and influential, nor any organ of state should be above the law of the Constitution. We must fiercely protect and defend the gains of our liberation and the Constitution, writes Adil Nchabeleng.

The price of our freedom was engraved in the loss of lives over many decades of struggles against apartheid and colonisation.

This brief essay seeks to revisit and revive the forgotten debate on key fundamental rights, freedoms and protections which forms part of South Africa’s victory against apartheid and colonisation. These freedoms are classically codified and enshrined in our Constitution.

This essay comes at a time in South Africa where we see such rights openly violated by organs of state. In the past month just days after an almost nationwide uprisings, riots and looting. The state took an about turn and started a manhunt and went after key individuals and social media activists whom they considered a threat to the administration.

The state’s intent was to target, intimidate, terrify, arrest, imprison and use the courts to silence and mute those who were perceived to be a threat. They were targeted for arrest under a disguise that they were linked to the uprising and riots which took place during the month of July, which so far there has not been a shred of evidence from the state to such claims.

This was a clear indication that the police and to some extent the courts were working under clear instructions from authority high above, to use state organs as a tool to suppress individual freedoms and terrorise and intimidate into silence activists who were arrested.

We must speak out against the targeted recent arrests of all individuals and the silencing of civil society institutions and the continuing threats of arrests and intimidation towards civil society activists.

This is what brings us to this critical point where we have to revisit our Constitution and understand these important freedoms.

To understand the importance of these critical views on freedom of expression one must go back several centuries in history to a time when the world was in a dark age and people were denied basic freedoms. Basic freedoms such as freedom of expression, association, choice, scientific expression etc.

The most basic fundamental freedoms which were for hundreds of years denied to ordinary people around the world. The most notable of ordinary people who risked everything and was imprisoned for expression of his ideas and yet continued to fight for this rights to be recognise. Among them was the great Philosophers such as Voltaire, a French Philosopher born in Paris on November 21, 1694 who wrote over 70 books which included essays about freedom of speech and religion.

In a short blog by Jenna Lowd, she explores in a simplified way, how this great philosopher was a champion in advocating for such rights and freedoms.

She says: “During the Age of Absolutism, before the first amendment protected them from free speech if people spoke out in front of the king they would most likely be executed. The king did not allow freedom of speech because it was thought that the king was sent from God (and as such could not be opposed nor questioned and should be worshipped).

“By the 1700s, new ideas began to emerge about rights people should have. One example is Voltaire. This philosopher had ideas about freedom of speech. Some of those ideas included giving people the right to speak out and give their opinion about the king and the government. In the twenty-first century, there are still questions about the rights that the Philosophers wrote about in the 1700s. Freedom of speech allows people like me to speak their mind and not have to be worried about getting in trouble for what they say.

“This philosopher came up with ideas about Freedom of Speech. The ideas of Voltaire were written in over 70 books which included essays about freedom of speech and religion. One important idea is that he believed there should be tolerance, reason, freedom of religious belief, and freedom of speech.

“Voltaire fought to make sure people were tolerant, to be tolerant it means you accept everyone for who they are. Voltaire did not want individuals who are different to be picked on.

“A second important idea by Voltaire is that there should be a guarantee of free speech in governments. This means Voltaire helped citizens to have freedom of speech. Freedom of speech helps citizens to stand up for what they believe in and have a voice in society, and also influence laws and ideas.

“Voltaire had a strong influence on the world of the 21st century. Voltaire's ideas could be found in the first amendment to the American constitution which prohibits the government from abridging the freedom of speech. This helps Americans in the 21st century in many ways. A few ways include people using freedom of speech to make the world a better place. Freedom of speech has allowed people to overthrow officials that are not doing their job correctly.

“Voltaire’s ideas are also found in the Constitution of South Africa. The right to freedom of expression.”

The Constitution of 1996 brought about a move away from an authoritarian and dictatorial culture to one of openness or transparency, fairness and tolerance, accountability and justification of actions. Freedom of expression is one of the civil freedoms guaranteed in section 16 of the Constitution:

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes:

(a) Freedom of the press and other media.

(b) Freedom to receive or impart information or ideas.

(c) Freedom of artistic creativity.

(d) Academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

As a society and civil society activists, if we do not protect and fight for the preservation of these fundamental rights, this beautiful democratic country will collapse. Within a short space of time the gains of our liberation struggle will be eroded. And the notion of South Africa being a constitutional state built on the foundation of a democratic South Africa will evaporate and our country will collapse into a totalitarian state and no longer democratic.

Citizens’ revolt, chaos and mayhem will take over. The state and all its organs will collapse and cease to exist. Africa is full of such examples where democracy was hijacked and the rise of authoritarian dictatorships took control of countries and collapsed.

No leader, however rich, powerful and influential, nor any organ of state should be above the law of the Constitution. The Constitution of South Africa is the supreme law which ought to be respected and protected at all times by all of us as citizens more so those in leadership positions and in institutions established with authority.

It is our duty and right to speak out against any attempts to capture the organs of state and use them as lethal weapons to target, oppress, suppress, intimidate, silence and jail or incarcerate anyone without cause simply because people are exercising their fundamental Constitutional rights and freedoms.

We must fiercely protect and defend the gains of our liberation and the Constitution. Power to the people.

* Adil Nchabeleng is a civil society and human rights activist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.


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