A Hopeful Constitution

We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to -

Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;

Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and

Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

This preamble to South Africa’s constitution was drafted after hundreds of years of division, conflict, and appropriation where non-white people were repressed and excluded from the political process. Its language is intentional, careful to recognize the wrongs of the past while aspiring to fulfill the hope of a post-apartheid, democratic nation.

But what does it mean for a South Africa that “belongs to all who live in it?” If I were able to use Westlaw to find commentary on the legislative history of the South African constitution, would the discussion include those seeking refuge? Their children born in South Africa? Who has the opportunity to receive the promises made in this document?

Over the past ten weeks, I experienced some of the inner workings of a government system that is proud of the constitution it created—as it should be. Their constitution speaks of human dignity, equality, the right to freedom and security. But as I sit on my flight back to Virginia, I’m left with a familiar feeling. Just like my country's own constitution, what’s written on the page is not identical to what happens in reality.

There is so much I can look at from my time spent in South Africa, and the country I am returning to, that it would be easy, maybe even expected, for me to be disillusioned. That after seeing clients treated the way they were by government officials whose job it is to serve the public, hearing how these clients’ home governments failed to protect their citizens, witnessing how these vulnerable people are easy targets for exploitation, I could let the sorrow swallow me whole. But then I think of my trip to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner before he became the first president after apartheid ended. The prisoners then, arrested for insisting on representation of all South African people, the tour guide now, well aware of the deep structural failures of his country’s current government, were hopeful. And this hope was not a blind naivete, but an eyes-wide-open awareness of the imperfections, the continued struggles, the never-ending work involved in building a more perfect union.

So as I continue to reflect on my ten weeks in this beautiful country, I think back to my first week when I wondered about the kind of advocate I want to be in light of constitutions with aspirations they have yet to achieve. I hope it is one who does not lose hope. Hope that a nation’s leaders have the will to heal past injustices. Hope that people seeking refuge are able to find a new home where they can belong. Hope that all people will be able to walk in the dignity they deserve. Hope that the promises made in our founding documents will eventually be granted to all people, securing for them the blessings of liberty.

May God protect our people.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso. God seën Suid-Afrika. God bless South Africa. Mudzimu fhatutshedza Afurika. Hosi katekisa Afrika.