FORMER Cabinet Minister Professor Kader Asmal warned last night that “we are observing our constitutional order being chiselled away to the point where we risk losing sight of the founding principles and practices of our democracy. One can see it and hear it.”
Asmal was delivering the annual George Botha Memorial Lecture at the South End Museum on Freedom, Democracy and the Constitutional Project.
He said he would contend that “the greatest national achievement of our liberation and transition to democracy was the crafting of a constitution and constitutional order that is held as legitimate and just domestically.
“Because it was actively negotiated, everyone’s needs were taken into account.”
Asmal said he believed, however, “something is now going worryingly wrong with our constitutional order and, in turn, with our democracy.
“It does not matter how elegant our institutions of democracy are, if they are not cherished, invigorated and protected by all of us, politicians, jurists, academics, the media and the citizenry. It is not acceptable for public leaders to genuflect to constitutionalism while attacking it by stealth.”
He pointed out that the principles of the Constitution and its core values had over the past two decades twice “saved us from what could have been cataclysmic events – the assassination of Chris Hani and murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche” – although he noted one was a potential leader of a democratic South Africa and the other a man “killed in the course of a labour dispute”.
Commenting on the political landscape, Asmal said the politics of intimidation and of bullying appeared frequently and was “very much favoured by our political superiors”.
“The examples are plentiful. A police chief gotten up in military insignia; attacks on individual judges for not delivering favourable verdicts; academic freedom dangerously dismissed as the vehicle for counter-revolutionaries; appointments to judicial and quasi-judicial offices that appear deliberately to change the nature of these organs; and threats by the ANCYL against “gangsta journalists” for daring to report on the business interests of Julius Malema.
Turning to the media, Asmal said at any time and under any political, social and economic dispensation, “the media has a vital role to play in speaking truth to power.
“A vital and vibrant media is the daily lifeblood of democracy, through the ventilation of ideas and debate.
“Its core tasks are to inform where there is ignorance, illuminate where there is opacity and to critique where there is abuse and arrogance. Yet too often the media in South Africa has been and continues to be the captive of powerful interests.
“However, we must guard against legislation that will hamper the press, however unwelcome its criticism may be.
“I am not being alarmist when I say that (the Protection of Information Bill) is one of the most draconian attacks on freedom of information, which is not only constitutionally protected, but is the backbone for the press and for democracy in general.”