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Civil society a tool in rights education

Human rights education is not only government’s responsibility. Civil society is an equally important role-player in raising constitutional awareness.

The overall thrust of Tim Fish Hodgson and Meghan Finn’s article on the importance of South Africans knowing our Constitution (The Star, 10 December 2014) is to be supported.  The article, however, exposes some important facets of the relationship between government and civil society organisations in their interface over human rights campaigns.

Unfortunately, in publicising their Know your Constitution campaign, the writers of the article try and project Government in general, and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development in particular, as “lack(ing) the political will”  in popularising the Constitution - yet they make no mention of the many government initiatives and interventions to raise constitutional awareness. 

They create the impression that the Department is inaccessible and that they were only able to access support and resources through the South African Human Rights Commission. This is blatantly untrue as they have had access to both myself and senior officials of the Department.  They state that, in the light of this tardiness, they now appeal to Deputy President Ramaphosa to ensure that South Africans have access to the Constitution.

Such grandstanding may indeed impress the Know Your Constitution’s funders or potential funders, but the assertions are false.

Trying to use facts to bolster their claims, the authors of the article point to the fact that in the 2013/14 financial year only 30 000 constitutions were printed and that in 2014 only 11 000 constitutions have been printed. They then use these figures to argue that government is not doing enough.

But they miss the bigger picture – namely that constitutional awareness is about much more than simply printing booklets. Constitutional awareness entails actively informing people of their rights. Making justice accessible and raising constitutional awareness means shaping programmes in such a way that they have the most effect.

The reality is that many people live in rural areas and not all South Africans are literate. Even for those who are literate the Constitution is not always that easy to understand. One has to therefore tailor-make constitutional awareness and constitutional education programmes in a way that reaches people, in a format that is easy to understand and that they can relate to.

On the issue of access to printed copies of the Constitution, the Department printed and distributed copies of the Constitution which are widely available in most government buildings. In addition, copies of the Constitution as well as other human rights material are distributed at workshops conducted throughout the country by both the Department on its own or through the Foundation for Human Rights. The Foundation for Human Rights is the Department’s implementing partner under the Access to Justice and Promotion of Constitutional Rights Programme. Copies of Constitutions are furthermore distributed, upon request, to various organisations and stakeholders. 

Our Department has also translated the Constitution into all official languages, as well as Braille.  A limited number of copies of the Constitution were printed last year (the figure of 11000 referred to by Hodgson and Finn) because it was the first time the Department issued the popular version of the Constitution in all official languages and it was a trial to determine demand.

Currently we are looking at distributing copies of the Founding Provisions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (Chapters 1 and 2 of the Constitution) and we are working closely with the Department of Basic Education, the South African Human Rights Commission and the Foundation for Human Rights in this regard.  This is something the authors refer to in their article, but try and claim as being their initiative.

Our Department has, through its various branches been engaged in educating the public on the Constitution itself, as well as on constitutionally mandated pieces of legislation such as the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act and the Promotion of Access to Information Act. These three pieces of legislation have also all been printed in booklet form in all official languages.

We continuously work with civil society organisations on various constitutional literacy initiatives.   Hodgson and Finn mention only the Know Your Constitution campaign, but this is not the only campaign that our Department is involved in. There are many other programmes and initiatives which seek to raise constitutional awareness.

Our Access to Justice and Promotion of Constitutional Rights Programme, which we ran in partnership with the Foundation for Human Rights, set out to contribute to the strengthening of democracy by improving access to justice and promoting constitutional rights. The aim of this programme was to build greater awareness and knowledge of constitutional rights. It is only when people are made aware that they are able to claim their rights that they can actively influence decisions made about their personal and family wellbeing, their communities and their country. 

Under these goals, particular attention was given to vulnerable and marginalised groups, particularly those in townships and rural areas and to the building of partnerships with civil society organisations.

Whether it be the nine-million persons reached through popular education programmes, or the 360 000 farm workers and farm dwellers who now have increased access to justice, or the 5 400 members of civil society organisations who have benefited from capacity building programmes, all of them now have a greater understanding of what a living Constitution is.

Whether it’s the people in the 100 Community-based Advice Offices who ensured that more than 100 000 migrants were provided with legal support services, or the more than 1 300 civil society organisations who were involved in the programme, every single person has been empowered and has benefited from the programme.

On 10 December 2014, International Human Rights Day, we launched the Socio Economic Justice for All (SEJA) programme with our partner, the Foundation for Human Rights. SEJA will focus on improved awareness of constitutional rights with more emphasis on socio- economic rights and on vulnerable and marginalised groups.  In addition, it will focus on improved and sustained collaboration between government, Chapter 9 Institutions, civil society and other stakeholders in terms of justice service delivery and socio economic rights. Strengthening the capacity, engagement and participation of civil society organisations in the realisation of constitutional rights will be of the utmost importance. The programme will be implemented over a period of 60 months followed by 24 months wrap-up.

Making the Constitutional accessible to people is not about simply counting the number of copies printed. It requires holistic and comprehensive programmes and resources.

We do not measure the success of our programmes by the number of meetings we hold, but by the numbers of people we reach.

In getting South Africans to know and understand their Constitution and particularly the rights afforded to them, we need to partner with Non-Governmental and Civil Society Organisations in order to reach as many people as possible.  We do not expect that such partnerships will restrict these organisations from being publically critical of Government or the Department of Justice, if and where such criticism is justified. 

However, these partnerships cannot work if a particular NGO or CSO tries to elevate itself, at the expense of Government.  Government cannot be expected to provide the resources, but at the same time, be unfairly belittled as being incompetent. Partnership is a two-way street. Human rights education and constitutional awareness are too crucial to be mired in petty point scoring exercises.

John Jeffery
Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development

21 Jan 2015