Since the Director-General has already welcomed everyone here, I am in the fortunate position to simply be able to say “distinguished guests and friends”.
It is an enormous pleasure and indeed an honour to be able to say a few words at this event.
As we celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the coming into effect of the Constitution in February 1997 it is an ideal opportunity for us to review and reflect on the important role our judiciary and our courts have played over many years.
The independence of the judiciary and the institutional prominence of our courts lie at the very core of our constitutional dispensation.
Our courts are often seen as the last bastion of people’s rights and freedoms.
Our courts act as the very buttress of a constitutional democracy.
If our courts work, democracy works.
If people have confidence in the judicial system, they have confidence in democracy.
But our courts are not only a shield to protect people’s rights and freedoms - they are also an embodiment of Lady Justice who, blindfolded, with sword and scales, has to fend off what is bad, has to protect human rights, bring about equality and fairness and apply the law without fear, favour or prejudice.
A lot has been written and said about the transformative nature of our Constitution and our courts are often at the forefront of these changes.
Since 1994, a substantial body of new laws has emerged from all spheres of government to fulfil the Constitutional mandate.
This has resulted in the creation of new independent democratic institutions, the repeal of discriminatory laws, new laws dealing with, amongst others, land restitution, strengthening of land tenure, the facilitation of access to housing and the provision of social assistance to those in need.
These are laws that make a meaningful difference in the lives of people.
Some of the laws required in terms of the Bill of Rights sought to address systemic and structural inequalities and prohibit unfair discrimination, advance a transparent and open democratic society.
Many of the rights we enjoy today – in particular in the area of socio-economic rights – have been given shape to through progressive jurisprudence and through a judiciary who has never been afraid to tell us, as government, when and where we fall short.
It is the judgments of our courts that are continuously being factored into the policies and programmes of Government to ensure the strengthening of human rights culture in the country.
We have indeed come a long way over the past 25 years.
But we still have a long way to go.
Some of you may have seen an article in yesterday’s Daily Maverick where Mark Heywood asks, like the words of the song by David Bowie, “How much time have we really got — five years?”
He mentions the climate crisis, global heating and the environmental crisis. He refers to the crisis of poverty and inequality, with inequality being fuelled by what he calls “the crisis of kleptocracy and corruption”.
He speaks about “a new era of growing political tension and possibly war between hybrids of ultra-capitalist kleptocracies and oligarchies, post ideology, and none of them even superficially committed to social justice.”
And then he says –
“The next few years pose a danger of rushing headlong into a series of converging crises that, if not recognised and overcome, will feed into each other and usher South Africa and the world into a dark place, where the constitutional freedoms we have become used to in our democracies — to protest, to freedom of speech and a free media, to vote — will no longer be available.
That will make it much more difficult to challenge authoritarian power and organise ourselves out of a planetary crisis.”
We have achieved a lot, but we need to do more. We cannot leave it up to courts alone to give effect to what the Constitution seeks for us as a nation.
It is incumbent on South Africans from all walks of life to embark on programmes dedicated at eradicating the legacies of discrimination from our past and strive towards the attainment of social justice for all.
If, as Mark Heywood is predicting, the world is going to hell in a hand basket, we need to do something about it.
For us, in government, we must continuously strengthen and support our courts and uphold the values of the Constitution.
We need to protect the integrity and the independence of our judiciary.
We need to strengthen and capacitate civil society bodies and partner with them where we can and encourage active citizenry.
It is also imperative that we address the implementation gap – so that rights on paper transform into tangible benefits for people in their daily lives.
We cannot see on, for example, social media, some people saying that there have been no constitutional gains.
We must ensure that the Constitution changes people’s lives in a meaningful and impactful way – this is something our courts have done superbly by way of constitutional jurisprudence over the past more than two decades.
I know that today’s event and the various discussions by our esteemed speakers and panellists will be a way for us to further build on these successes.
I thank you.