Our first morning in Pretoria was spent at the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. I was surprised as we walked into the office to see posters hanging up that advertised various rights to each South African citizen, such as sexual orientation and gender. This has been a running theme throughout our stay in the country. Similar posters are hanging in court houses, the Public Protector, and the Human Rights Commission. I’ve met several South Africans who are clearly aware of their rights, afforded to them in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Our tour guide, Moses, has experienced check points by the police, in which he told the authorities that if they pull him over, they must pull everyone over. While the country is still working on making sure every citizen, including those in the rural areas, is aware of his rights, it’s still in stark contrast to America.
The average US citizen will likely read the Bill of Rights and walk away with one interpretation of what it means. The best way to understand your rights under the US Bill of Rights is to talk to a lawyer, and probably a constitutional lawyer to be safe.
I’ve thought a lot about the relationship South Africans have with their constitution compared to the relationship we have with ours. I think part of it comes down to age. The US Constitution was ratified in 1789 and the Bill of Rights ratified in 1790. Clearly, there are no longer citizens who remember the transition from the Articles of Confederation to the current constitution. When I think about the US Constitution, the image that comes to mind is that of an ancient document protected behind glass in Washington DC. Sure, I’ve got a couple pocket constitutions I use for law school, but even when I read it I’m always struck by the strange spelling and historical grammar. In short, it’s a document that may define my citizenship, but it was written so many generations ago that I often wonder if the Framers had any idea that one day the Constitution would protect a person like me.
It is absolutely different in South Africa. Even our guide Moses just gave us another three minute history lesson on the transition from apartheid to democracy as we’re driving out of Pretoria. I don’t remember the last time I brought up the Revolutionary War to relate to my voting rights (not that I would have had voting rights at that time). South Africa has a long history: hundreds of years of colonial rule and wars between the British and Boers. But the history that matters most to all South Africans is not even twenty years old. So many South Africans remember life under apartheid that life under this constitution has a significant meaning. I only fear for the future generations of South Africa who may not appreciate their constitution because it’s over 200 years old. At the same time, though, the idea of the South African Constitution lasting that long is a beautiful thought.