Nelson Mandela Foundation

Often in recent weeks I have found myself wondering what the "rule of law" means for a society like ours. It is, of course, a fundamental tenet of democracy and the basis of personal and community safety and security. But what does it mean when we absorb the significance of the recently published quarterly crime statistics, which confirm what so many of my colleagues, friends and acquaintances have become used to experiencing as "the norm"? 

What does it mean when people who took an oath to protect the Constitution and our democracy use and abuse the instruments of law to evade accountability and make a mockery of justice? What does it mean when such people are willing to garner support from those who use the rhetoric of war in a country as violent as ours? Or when leaders in political parties thumb their noses at the notions of due and proper process, and yet expect lower-ranking members to abide by the rules and submit themselves to due process? 

What does it mean when a community apprehends and necklaces nine men suspected of criminal activity – rather than trust the criminal justice system? What does it mean when children witness such scenes and get to school and have to share intimate details of what they witnessed? What does it mean when criminals can use spikes on the road and motorists are advised not to drive on particular roads at certain times of the night? 

What does it mean when employment equity laws make little impact on the upward mobility of black people working in the private sector? Or when drivers take their cars the wrong way down one-way streets with impunity? 

What it means, in my view, is that lawlessness has come to define our society in many ways. And it means that state apparatuses designed to protect citizens are no longer effective or, even worse, have been allowed to fall apart.

For the rule of law to mean anything at all, for the concept to have traction in a society, there needs to be at least a measure of respect for the systems and the structures of law. And that, precisely, is our problem. 

By the end of the apartheid era, especially after a decade of state terror and civil war, not only was the social fabric in tatters but this fundamental respect – arguably one of the core building blocks of democracy – was notable by its absence. Which is one of the reasons why for Nelson Mandela the central objective of his Presidency was simply to make democracy stick. It also explains some of the mistakes that were made during the first democratic administration – winning that respect as quickly as possible required decisive action, and too often (in retrospect) quick-fix solutions were embraced rather than the deeper-rooted but much slower options.

Today, in the year that we mark the 25th anniversary of the Constitution, it is evident that we are faced by a massive deficit in trust and respect. And it is equally evident that quick-fix solutions are not an option. The long walk to freedom is still a long walk.

It’s not that we don’t know what is required to build respect for the systems and the structures of law. We know. We need to root out corrupt politicians and officials. We need to turn commissions of enquiry from spaces of investigation into springboards for prosecution. We need to attract and nurture what I would call activist bureaucrats – public servants who are passionate about service. 

We need smarter policing rather than more policing. We need more crime prevention and more rehabilitation of offenders. We need social workers and a social work sector that is elevated in the public imagination and embraced in policy as fundamental to any crime prevention strategy. (Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela knew that. Mama Albertina Sisulu knew that.) We need teachers who teach. We need small farmers who have security of tenure and who are enabled and supported to get their produce to market. I could go on. We know what is required.

What we don’t know is how to mobilise the will to do what is required. And that is our singular challenge.