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Address by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the National Conference on the Constitution, Gallagher Convention Centre, Johannesburg

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Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Mr Ronald Lamola,
Justices of the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court of Appeal,
Judges President and Judges,
Ministers and Deputy Ministers,
Acting Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, Hon Jomo Nyambi,
Members of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces,
Heads of Chapter 9 Institutions,
Traditional Leaders,
Chancellor of the University of Venda, Adv Mojanku Gumbi,
Vice Chancellors of Institutions of Higher Learning,
Director General of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development and other Directors General,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen, 

Thank you for this opportunity to reflect on 25 years of the implementation of our Constitution. 

Our Constitution is the product of long and protracted struggles for freedom, justice, equality, human dignity and a better life for all people. 

It is the product of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid, against oppression, subjugation and dispossession.

In the first certification case of the new Constitution, the Constitutional Court said:

“South Africa’s past has been aptly described as that of ‘a deeply divided society characterised by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice’ which ‘generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles in violent conflicts and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge.”

Our Constitution is therefore more than the supreme law of our land. It is a firm and emphatic rejection of the political, social and economic system that came before it.

Our Constitution, which has now been in operation for over 25 years, constitutes a social compact on how we should relate to each other as a people, how we should relate to other nations as a sovereign state, and how we should govern ourselves and our resources. 

The Preamble to our Constitution gives a powerful sense of the context in which it was written, the past which it sought to correct and the future to which it aspired.

In the Preamble, we the people of South Africa firmly state that the purpose of the Constitution is to: 

- Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

- Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;

- Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and,

- Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

By describing the purpose of the Constitution in these terms, the people of South Africa established the Constitution as an instrument of fundamental political, social and economic transformation.

The Constitution places on all institutions of state a responsibility to take those measures necessary to build a society that is in nearly all respects different from the society that came before.

It places emphasis on the work that must be done to heal the divisions of the past in circumstances where these divisions are manifested in the severe inequality of the present.

It calls for social justice in circumstances where a large proportion of South Africans live in poverty and where, despite substantial progress, many are still unable to access land, housing, water, food, health care and education.

The Constitution correctly recognises that to advance this transformational promise, all spheres of government and all organs of state are required to provide “effective, transparent, accountable and coherent governance”.

To ensure that organs of state execute their constitutional mandates effectively, the legislative branch of government has the power to hold respective executive organs to account and have oversight over the implementation of legislation and the conduct of other organs of state.

Parliament, as a representative of the citizens, has a clear mandate to hold the President, Deputy President and Ministers to account, individually and collectively, for the exercise of their powers and performance of their functions. 

Our legislative branch has over the past 25 years contributed to our constitutional democracy through the enactment of legislation that both transforms society and the relationship between citizens and state. This legislation includes those required to give effect to the provisions of the Constitution, 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. 

The work of the legislative branch in promoting good governance has been complemented by State institutions established to support constitutional democracy. These include the Public Protector, the South African Human Rights Commission, the Commission on Gender Equality, the Electoral Commission and the Auditor-General.

Each of these bodies plays an important role in the viability and sustainability of our constitutional democracy. They help to ensure the state gives effect to the ideals and vision of our Constitution. 

The Judiciary, by upholding the rule of law and protecting human rights, has played a pivotal role in our constitutional democracy. 

The enforcement of laws through the Judiciary is crucial in ensuring the sustainability and viability of our democracy. Laws bond individuals in a society together. 

Without the rule of law, our country is vulnerable to chaos, violence, rampant corruption, violation of human rights, persistent inequality and the collapse of state institutions. 

The Judiciary, led by the Constitutional Court and, in particular, founding members like Arthur Chaskalson and Pius Langa, has played a key role in giving effect to the founding values of the post-apartheid South Africa. 

It has played this role through groundbreaking judgments on many aspects of the Constitution. 

Following its establishment, the Constitutional Court has emerged as a uniquely powerful institution manifesting a moral constitutional authority. 

There is no viable state or effective constitutional democracy without the support and involvement of citizens in the different public formations. 

Apart from paying taxes, observing the law, and contributing to social and economic development, citizens also play an important role in the establishment of our various governance structures and in holding accountable those put in charge to serve the nation. 

Over the past 25 years of our Constitution, a lot of progress has been made in redressing the injustices of the past. 

Some of these measures include the provision of housing, water and sanitation, and social grants for the elderly, persons with disabilities and children. There has been a distinct improvement in access to land, education and health care services.

These are part of ongoing efforts to address economic and social injustices. 

However, despite numerous achievements, there are still many challenges in the realisation of the vision, values and prescripts of our Constitution. 

The persistently high levels of poverty, unemployment, inequality, corruption and violence show that our journey to the promised land is far from over.

The contours of our racist and sexist past still feature in private and public institutions, in business, in access to skills, wealth and opportunity, and in the spatial configuration of our cities, towns and rural areas. 

South Africa’s constitutional project will fail if vast inequalities and existing levels of poverty are not addressed by all levels of government. 

As the courts acknowledged in the case of Soobramoney v Minister of Health:

“We live in a society in which there are great disparities in wealth, millions of people are living in deplorable conditions and in great poverty. There is a high level of unemployment, inadequate social security, and many do not have access to clean water or adequate health services. These conditions already existed when the constitution was adopted and a commitment to address them, and to transform our society into one in which there will be human dignity, freedom and equality, lies at the heart of our new constitutional order. For as long as these conditions continue to exist that aspiration will have a hollow ring.” 

The success of our constitutional democracy will, to a large extent, depend on how these challenges are addressed. 

Therefore, as this Conference reflects on the road ahead, it should reflect on issues such as progress on land restitution and reform, electoral reform and governance, and transformation of the economy. It should also reflect on corruption, crime and national security, and how these issues impact on the exercise and protection of human rights.

It is my sincere belief that this gathering of South Africans in all their diversity will identify actionable measures that will materially contribute towards the achievement of our constitutional goals. 

This conference gives us an opportunity to reflect on the road we must traverse to strengthen our constitutional democracy and address the many challenges around the rule of law, accountability and social and economic justice. 

The strengthening and entrenchment of constitutional democracy requires ethical, committed and effective leadership in all spheres of our society, political will and the support of all our citizens. 

As we prepare to reflect on these issues, we should recall the words of former President Nelson Mandela on the occasion of the signing of the Constitution in Sharpeville on the 10th of December 1996. He said:

“Today we cross a critical threshold.

Let us now, drawing strength from the unity which we have forged, together grasp the opportunities and realise the vision enshrined in this constitution.

Let us give practical recognition to the injustices of the past, by building a future based on equality and social justice.

Let us nurture our national unity by recognising, with respect and joy, the languages, cultures and religions of South Africa in all their diversity.

Let tolerance for one another's views create the peaceful conditions which give space for the best in all of us to find expression and to flourish.

Above all, let us work together in striving to banish homelessness, illiteracy, hunger and disease.” 

These words provide an essential guide as we chart the road ahead.

I wish all delegates well and I look forward over the next three days to the robust and productive engagement from which our constitutional democracy and our nation will surely benefit.

I thank you.