Hands off our constitution!

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IOL PN_cons0 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS The ANC is seeking to change the constitution. However, argues the writer, the constitution has nothing to do with corruption, mud schools and poor governance. File picture: Itumeleng English

The president must tackle corruption and other woes instead of aiming to change the constitution, says Eusebius McKaiser.

Johannesburg - Please can our politicians try more sophisticated tricks on us? My goodness, the elections tactics being used currently are hilarious! The latest trickery is the ANC asking the public to help it get a two thirds majority so that it can, if it wants to, make changes to the constitution that will supposedly improve our lives.

Oh please, JZ, what does the constitution have to do with poor governance, with corruption, with textbooks not being delivered, Nkandlagate, ghost teachers, the abuse of BEE, collapsed public health services in the Eastern Cape, slow land reform by the government’s own standards, mud schools, and 60 percent of Grade 1 learners dropping out of school before reaching matric?

Is the constitution the reason we have high unemployment, deep inequality and immoral levels of poverty? No.

First, let’s state what is not obvious for some opposition parties, and some liberal lawyers and activists. Changing the constitution is not a sin. Our own constitution has been amended almost 20 times since democracy’s birth. Constitutions in established democracies are amended periodically without anyone screaming that those democracies will collapse as a result.

The constitution is not a holy cow that should not be slaughtered. It should, of course, not be changed willy-nilly, precisely because it is meant to contain our shared ideals that we must strive towards as we build a new society. So change is allowed, but not regularly, and only in accordance with the rules that guide amendments to the constitution.

Mac Maharaj, Zuma’s spokesman, is spot-on about all of this.

Second, opposition parties are being needlessly hysterical in responding to the ANC’s wish by screaming at voters, “STOP A 2/3rds MAJORITY! THEY WANT TO CHANGE THE CONSTITUTION!” There isn’t a credible reason to assume the ANC would throw the constitution’s foundational values, which the Constitutional Court will use as a guide in testing amendments, out of the window. And, let’s not forget that some of the most drastic changes to the constitution would require more than a two/thirds majority.

More importantly, the ANC previously had the chance to change the constitution. It didn’t attempt to make presidents immune from prosecution, allow for three presidential terms, remove the property clauses, or do any of the other changes opposition parties want voters to fear.

As irritating as accountability is, I think ANC leaders – not all of them, but a great many of them – should be given credit for having a basic commitment to constitutional democracy. So I don’t buy into the opposition parties’ fear-mongering.

Yet, I still think the ANC deserve a harsh lashing for saying they’d like to be able to change the constitution. But the reason I think they are out of order is much simpler than opposition parties’ rhetoric of doom. The ANC, by saying it wants to be able to change the constitution, essentially implies that the constitution is an obstacle to good governance.

This is absolute rubbish. With exactly the constitution we have now, and without further amendments, we could live in a more prosperous South Africa. What is lacking is not a better worded constitution. We lack a state that is completely filled with men and women who are skilled, ethical and committed to implementing government policies faithfully and effectively.

It is a pure governance problem. It isn’t a problem with the design of the state, or the Bill of Rights, or other aspects of the constitution. It is the incumbent government’s failures that explain mud schools, textbook crises or hospitals running out of drugs in some provinces.

One activist, partly sympathetic to my view, suggested there are changes to the constitution that could help the government, such as scrapping the three-tier system of government. Provinces could be scrapped or the number of provinces could be reduced.

But this isn’t convincing. The three-tier system of government is not intrinsically doomed to fail. It is corruption through tender processes, for example, that explains the incompetency of many provincial governments. And, similarly, if fewer political pals were in charge of local government, and more technically qualified staff were appointed, service delivery would improve.

It is a mistake to blame the three-tier model for why potholes are not filled or water runs out in Grahamstown.

It’s not a faulty design of government that is the root of the problem. It’s a lack of political will and lack of a skilled, efficient bureaucracy that explain the gaps in delivery.

Opposition parties would do well to stop the melodrama by pretending the ANC is filled with evil people. Be calmer in your critique of the ANC. Pick out more salient problems with what the ANC is desiring.

Opposition parties should simply tell voters to put the government, and not the constitution, on trial in the elections.

* McKaiser hosts Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on Power 98.7. He is author of the best-selling collection of essays A Bantu In My Bathroom

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers

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