Former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs recently shared his views on the state of the nation and whether the country’s acclaimed constitution is delivering on its promises or not, saying it’s encouraging to see the constitution working, but there were “huge questions” about the conduct of public leaders inside and outside political parties.
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Speaking to Talk Radio 702 on Tuesday, justice Sachs said when South Africa’s first democratically endorsed constitution was drafted in 1997, there was a sense of anticipation that the country would have a strong and vibrant parliament that would hold the executive to account.
“In the early 90s when we were planning for a new constitution, we anticipated all the problems that we have today. Constitutions are about perfectibility and corruptibility. And you are building both, and you aspire for the perfect, but you are aware of the corruptibility of people … not just of the enemy of the regime.
“… Corruptibility in our own ranks, we are aware of that. So we build in mechanisms to give independence to the judiciary and independence to the auditor general, public protector,” he said.
Regarding the extraordinary Constitutional Court’s judgment earlier this year that found that President Jacob Zuma had broken his oath of office, including allegations of state capture swirling around the presidency, the former anti-apartheid activist said the more the problems the country was seized with, the more the constitution showed its resilience.
“At the same time there are huge questions about the character of public life, the conduct of public leaders inside and outside political parties in the public sphere. In the private sphere and so on, and what’s important about the constitution is that it provides a set of matrix, a set of institutions that will enable us to deal with those issues without tearing each other apart.
“It [constitution] doesn’t build houses, it doesn’t provide free education, [that’s] not the job of the constitution … the job of the constitution is to provide mechanisms to enable the people to assume their rights and to get the things that they want.”
Asked to comment on the quality of South Africa’s current crop of leadership, Sachs said the public celebrated “hardworking and committed” leaders in the public and private sector when they did their job.
“It’s brave to do your job well, it’s correct to do your job well, and I think it’s a great source of pride,” he said.
He also said he, like other freedom fighters, established values, principles and mechanisms from their experiences living in revolutionary countries, one-party states, multi-party democracies and have seen the best and the worst.
“There has been a lot of bad weather recently, but there is vitality in our society,” he said.
When the judiciary acts without fear or favour, citizens recognise this, particularly with the ConCourt’s Nkandla judgment, he said.
“It wasn’t like the courts are out of touch with what the people are saying – the deeper most inner feelings in the country. The public applauded … the public is really the broad sections of our society: the poor, wealthy and middle class … there are institutions standing for the values that people fought and sacrificed so much for.
On the fraud charges faced by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan for allegedly approving early retirement for a former senior Sars official during his tenure as commissioner of the tax authority, Sachs opted for an indirect response instead, as the matter is before the courts.
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“I worked with Pravin Gordhan during the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) period, he was totally amazing.
“Pravin had just come from the underground, you would think his eyes would need to adapt to the light … and he was calm to speak to everybody and kept resolutions passed and enabled us to move forward.
“So from that point of view, I think he is one of our great builders of South Africa and of the constitution. Whether he will benefit from the constitution that he helped create, is a matter also before the courts …”