20 years on, South Africa’s remarkable constitution remains unfulfilled

NEW YORK — Over a year after the death of Nelson Mandela, the constitution he championed continues to hold tremendous promise for democracy in South Africa.

For many, the document remains the most admirable and progressive constitution in the history of the world. It embraces broad personal and socio-economic rights, the duties of the state and the collective well being of its citizens. But 20 years after South Africa’s first democratic elections, much work remains to deliver on the great aspirations of this remarkable document.

Access to health care, safe and affordable housing, education and other basic rights remains elusive for millions — despite guarantees under the Bill of Rights. Furthermore, those who stand to benefit the most from these rights are often the least able to advocate for them.

These are real challenges where the need to protect the rights of the disadvantaged and to push for a democratic and open society is acute.

But what does this look like?

Consider health care. As the country implements a new national health care system, reformers should remember that access to health care services is a basic right in the South African Constitution Bill of Rights. 

The state is obliged to take reasonable legislative measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of these rights. But for a government that for years denied the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, what does it mean to ensure health services — like access to anti-retroviral medicines — and what does “available resources” actually mean?

If health resources are insufficient to provide reasonable access to health care, does the state have an obligation to provide additional funding? Should the state increase the number of qualified nurses and find ways to retain them in areas where access to health services is limited?  Whose role is it to speak out for the people? What if the state has insufficient financial resources to provide reasonable access to health care?

Fulfilling the constitution’s promise entails a range of efforts to address these questions — from building up health and education systems that deliver effective services to holding the government accountable through public interest litigation and advocacy. 

As institutions with a long history working on the ground in South Africa, our organizations are committed to this work. Last month we announced — along with the support of the Open Society Foundations — the formation of the Joint Fund for Constitutionalism, a $25 million fund to provide grants to support a democratic and open society in South Africa. The fund will support efforts like those described above — on health care, equal education, gay rights and other issues.

Still, we know our role is limited and we are just one set of actors. We must all do our part, and be real partners and catalysts to jointly realize the promise of South Africa's democracy and Mandela's vision. There is still work to be done to bring the dream of South Africa’s constitution to life, and re-energize the vision that Nelson Mandela personified when he assumed the presidency of South Africa 20 years ago.

Despite having the world's most progressive constitution, and being on the forefront of social and economic progress, South Africa remains a democracy characterized by deep social divisions and a history of violence. The constitution is a statement of aspirations — one that elevates our vision and gives us a north star towards which to navigate. Until the people of South Africa feel its imprint in tangible ways, there remains work to be done.

The document’s promise will not be achieved until all citizens of South Africa are ensured that their children have access to a quality education and health care, and can seek the legal advice necessary to secure their rights. 

The realization of this vision is dependent upon a diverse and engaged civil society. It is our individual and collective responsibility, as local and global citizens, to engage with these aspirations and challenges, and to clear the path for future countries to emerge from a divided and difficult past into an equitable, democratic future.

Christopher Oechsli is president of The Atlantic Philanthropies; Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation.

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