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Keynote address by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon JH Jeffery, MP, at the “My School, Rights and Lights Campaign – Celebrating 20 Years of our Constitution” held at Olievenhoutbosch Secondary School, Lalaphanzi Street Olievenhoutbosch, 21 October 2016

Programme Director and Managing Director of the Valued Citizens Initiative, Ms Carole Podetti-Ngono
Members of the Board of the Valued Citizens Initiative
The principal, educators and learners of Olievenhoutbosch Secondary
Distinguished guests
Ladies and gentlemen, friends

One of the many works of poetry which was banned by the apartheid government in the 1970s was a poem by James Matthews called Freedom’s Child. A few lines from it, read -

“Freedom’s child
You have been denied too long

Step forward and take your rightful place
You’re not going to grow up
Knocking at the back door

The rivers of our land, mountain tops
And the shore
It is yours,
you will not be denied anymore.”

All of you here today, are the children of freedom.
You are free because our Constitution guarantees your right to freedom, your right to human dignity and your right to equality.

This year we celebrate the 20th birthday of our Constitution.

When Former President Nelson Mandela signed the Constitution into law in December 1996, he signed it in Sharpeville.  

As you know, Sharpeville is an important place in the history of our country. So by choosing to sign the new Constitution in Sharpeville, President Mandela was reminding us of the people who died there during a peaceful demonstration against the pass laws in March 1960.

The signing of the Constitution in Sharpeville marked the ending of our country’s sad past and a new beginning for us all, the beginning of the creation of a new society of which all of us can be proud.

The drafting of the Constitution came about after complex deliberations and negotiations between various political parties and interest groups in South Africa and was then scrutinized by our Constitutional Court. The signed Constitution came into operation on 4 February 1997 and has since then drastically transformed our country.

A Constitution is a body of fundamental principles according to which a State is to be governed. In South Africa, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and all other pieces of legislation must align with its provisions.

Why is it important to know what the Constitution says?

Because if people are not aware of their constitutional rights or are not allowed to exercise these rights in their daily lives, then our Constitutional rights are only promises on paper.  That’s why our Department has launched a booklet called the Constitution Made Easy for Learners. This has been distributed to thousands of learners in our country.

If we don’t educate learners and communities on human rights, if people are not aware of their rights, then all these constitutional ideals are in vain.

Rights such as the right to housing, water, health care and education are called socio-economic rights.  If socio-economic rights are not accessible to our people, then the better life, that our Constitution envisages for all our people, will simply not be achievable.

In addition to socio-economic rights, we also find our civil-political rights – these are rights like the right to life, the right to vote and the right to freedom of expression.

You may also know that our Constitutional Court often has to adjudicate on matters that affect learners and their constitutional rights.  In a matter before the Constitutional Court, namely that of MEC for Education; Kwazulu-Natal and others v Pillay the Court had to examine the fundamental rights of a learner. 

In this case, the Constitutional Court heard an appeal from the KwaZulu-Natal High Court concerning the right of a learner to wear a nose stud to school.  In 2004 Sunali Pillay returned to Durban Girls’ High School from the spring holiday with a small nose stud.  This was not very popular with the school which told her to remove it.  Her mother took the matter the Equality Court alleging that the school had unfairly discriminated against Sunali and had violated her religious and cultural rights.

The Equality Court found that the school had not unfairly discriminated against Sunali.  On appeal, the High Court overturned the decision, finding that the school had discriminated against Sunali and that the discrimination was unfair.   

Then there was the case of Le Roux v Dey. In this case, three high school learners created and published a computer-generated picture in which the face of Dr Dey - who was the deputy principal of their school - was pasted alongside that of the school principal, on an image of two naked men.

The boy who created the picture sent it to his friend’s cellphone and they then sent the image to the cellphone of another learner at the school. One of the other learners who had received a copy of the image on his cellphone, thought it would be a good idea to print it out. He took the printout to school the next day and showed it to several other learners. One of them then suggested that the printout be placed on the school noticeboard.

Dr Dey, the deputy principal, then took legal action against the boys for defamation and injury to his feelings. The three learners were charged criminally at the instance of Dr Dey and they had to clean cages at a local zoo as community service.

The High Court upheld Dr Dey’s claims. The case then went to the Supreme Court of Appeal which affirmed the judgment of the High Court that the publication of the image defamed Dr Dey, and confirmed the award of R45 000 in damages to him.

The matter then went to the Constitutional Court.

How would you have argued the matter? Which right is more important and which right should be limited? The deputy principal’s right to dignity or the learner’s right to freedom of expression?

The Constitutional Court upheld the appeal and set aside the award of R45 000. In its stead, the Constitutional Court granted Dr Dey R25 000 and the 3 learners were ordered by the Court to tender an unconditional apology.

What these cases illustrate is that human rights, as found in Chapter 2 of our Constitution, affects nearly every aspect of our lives and shows how our courts will go about balancing various human rights.

Human rights are not simply a list of empty promises on paper, but a real and practical subject that has a direct impact on the way human beings live their day-to-day lives. It is dynamic and adapts to meet the ever-changing needs and demands of our society.

If we are to strengthen our democracy we must work harder to make people aware of their rights and the rights of others.   By doing so we will be able to strengthen respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and enable all persons to participate effectively in a free and democratic society governed by the rule of law.

Driven by these constitutional values, the Valued Citizens Initiative develops the character of citizens through life skills programmes. It seeks to help people engage with our democracy.

Many of you are beneficiaries of the iVALUE Identity programme which is enabling more than 2000 learners from 12 high schools in Gauteng to get their Identity Document and become active citizens.  Without Identity documents children face tremendous difficulties when wanting to exercise their rights such as enrolling in school, writing Matric examinations, exercising the right to vote and leading their lives.

Having rights also means having responsibilities. It means not trampling on the rights of others.

It means expressing your opinion, but not using hate speech.

It means affording other people the same rights that you would want for yourself.

It means protesting in a way that does not resort to violence. As former Justice of the Constitutional Court, Albie Sachs, said earlier this week: “This time around we have rights, we don’t have to resort to violence.

I want to wish you all the best. And I hope to see a team from this school in next year’s National Schools Moot Court Competition.

A special word of support and encouragement to the Grade 12’s who are writing their National Senior certificate exams which begun on Wednesday.

I am told that Olievenhoutbosch Secondary School is very proud of its 2015 matric results, with pupils attaining five distinctions and producing a 100% pass rate.  Like the school’s top pupils, Mluleki Ndlovu, who achieved a distinction in maths last year, and Terrence Mahlangu, who obtained a distinction in life sciences last year, may the Class of 2016 make us proud.

You are all the children of freedom.  As the poem says, step forward and take your rightful place, in our communities and in our country. I thank you.