We’re going to hack South Africa’s constitution. Here’s why…

Just over 20 years ago, on the 8th May 1996, The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa was approved by the national parliament and handed over to the Constitutional Court. It would be almost another year of amends and process until it was formally adopted, but the date remains significant nonetheless.

Now, Parliament is considering major changes and has opened up a channel for members of the public to have their say on what they think needs to be reworded.

We all know why the Constitution has been under the spotlight lately: on 31st March President Jacob Zuma was found to have failed to uphold, defend and respect the document that forms the supreme law of our land by not complying with the findings of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela over the Nkandla affair.

The ConCourt has also been the spotlight recently for its work in shutting down a bursary offered to female university students providing they pass regular virginity tests. Opponents of the new editorial policies put in place by the public broadcaster, the SABC, which prevent its journalists showing some scenes of violent protest, may well end up forcing the organisation to justify its stance in front of the ConCourt.

But Constitutional Law is a notoriously difficult thing to fully understand and follow. Explain, if you will, the ConCourt’s most recent decision to award Nkosana Makate the rights to a mobile phone service Vodacom developed on his idea. No single national news outlet (as far as we can tell) covered the judgement in detail — probably because it largely hinged on an obscure distinction between “ostensible authority” and “estoppel” (What’s that? — Ed).

The South African Constitution isn’t overly complex, but it is lengthy and it is highly prescriptive. Where the US Constitution famously fits on a single page, South Africa’s stretches to nearly 200 leaves laying down a Bill of Rights, the basics of parliamentary procedure and the mechanisms of oversight that serve to bind politicians, citizens, civil servants, employers and — yes — the SABC to its covenant.

Almost every South African institution, including the Reserve Bank, exists with a primary mandate laid out in the Constitution.

As Constitutions go, it’s one of the finest in the world. Written by a generation of politicians who emerged from Apartheid regime who wanted to enshrine equality and fair treatment before the law for all, the reason for its length and prescriptive nature is made clear in the short preamble.

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.
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.

The very quick precis? The Constitution is a document that above all else seeks to ensure that the injustices of the past cannot, will not, ever happen again.

Understanding the Constitution should be easy for everyone, even if you don’t know what estoppel means. It should be taught in schools and there should be a wealth of resources available for teachers, lawyers, journalists and citizens’ groups to

There aren’t. In fact, at present in South Africa there’s a scary and noticeable increase in the number of senior leaders and politicians who speak as though the Constitution is a set of guidelines rather than the supreme law of the land, drawn up by the founders of the new South Africa two decades ago. Theirs is the always deceptive argument of “common sense”. That some things should be left for men, not lawyers, to decide.

There is no counter movement within civil society which seeks to highlight the power of this amazing document, and its significant successes not just in holding the Office of the President to account, but in forcing municipalities to provide basic services for their poorest residents and more.

So we want to build something that will achieve that.

“We” is a loose alliance of people from Hacks/Hackers Johannesburg, TEDxJohannesburg and Design Share Party. We have the text of the constitution and its amendments, we have the full text of every judgement made by the Constitutional Court over the last 20 years. We have no particular political axe to grind, but we do have lawyers, designers — we even have graffiti artists waiting in the wings to help launch whatever it is we build.

We want to build something that won’t just be informational, but will allow people and groups from all across the political spectrum who have taken cases before the ConCourt to share their experiences. Most of all, we want to build something engaging that will demonstrate why the Constitution should be a source of national pride.

And we’re working on a project which we plan to open to the world at an event in Joburg as part of the Fakugesi Digital Arts Festival on August 26th. We have participants, but this is a massive project likely to take years to complete, so we need a lot more.

We want to #HackTheConstitution. And we hope you’d like to too.