I was 10. I remember that, because so many things happened that year. I remember you, in your first version – the A4 Interim Constitution of 1994. I still have it, sitting in my bookshelf – a pale blue cover, printed on the same paper as the last Apartheid laws. I wonder who was commissioned to make the rather abstract drawing for the cover. It was my first contact with law, and as I began to read it I realised how many voices had been woven together to create you.
When you were amended, in 1996, my father proudly brought home your little A5 self. In his office in Parliament on Longmarket Street, protected by the imperious statue of Queen Victoria, I remember that there was also one translated into isiZulu. I respected you, especially since you had such an impressive name – Umthethosisekelo. You were more than law. You were a declaration of our commitment to a new idea of nationhood.
In high school, whenever I debated, I proudly displayed you on the table in front of me. My arguments featured highlights of your best features – the rights of all citizens, the organs of state, the checks and balances. You inspired me in my teenage idealism. I carried you with me to international student leadership conferences in the United States, opening to your first pages to wow the monolinguals with our anthem and other stirring visionary statements in many different vernaculars.
When I left home, I left you behind. I was confident that you would remain unchanged, a solid piece of the 90’s to prevent the chaos everyone feared. I heard of various attacks, and of your defence. I rooted for you through all the chaos of the first decade of the third millenium, through denialism, xenophobia, corruption and abuse.
And when I moved up to Joburg, in the second decade, I visited your court. I marvelled at that shrine to the basic truth of your law, set in apposition to the abuses perpetrated before you existed.
A few years later, one of my new students found an old isiZulu version for me. I treasured you in that form, the ornate beauty of your formal Zulu a marker for me of how the language could be used to express visionary and life-changing concepts. I taught you to the next generation, proud that I had known you for your entire life. They wrote essays on your rights and organs, checks and balances. They were also inspired by your visionary quality.
You were then 20 years old. You had weathered some heavy storms. But when I saw the disregard being shown you and your protectors, I despaired. Powerful men and women didn’t seem to recognise you any more, even when your honour guard decided in your favour. And when, in your 22nd year, the most powerful man of them all was finally taken to task, we waited with bated breath.
Last week a vote of no confidence in a man who has been found to have violated you and your law, our law, turned into a vote of no confidence in you. 225 representatives of the ruling party voted that they preferred a man who violates the most basic of laws. They voted that they don’t care about you, or your most basic principles.
So what do we do now? There’s no one else. No other law is called, in most of the vernaculars of our country, “the foundation of law”. All other law stems from you. So if you are ignored, defiled and violated, what does that mean about all your children?
To paraphrase Plato’s Crito: “Do you imagine that a state can continue to exist and not be turned upside down, if the legal judgments which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons?”
I hope that this is not your obituary. I hope that you will not be cut down and trampled, having barely reached a quarter-century.