'Little girls' have the same rights as big men
There is a little, dog-eared yellow book called The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 in the satchel I use to cart the electronic necessities of modern life.
It is available free from many government information offices and on the internet, too. I dip into it quite often to check some or other clause of the contract we adopted as a nation two years after the white separatists threw in the towel, like rules for the appointment of judges or the principles underpinning our electoral system.
Most often, though, it is not necessary to delve deeper than the one-page Preamble, the three pages of Founding Provisions or, at most, the 19 pages of the Bill of Rights. That is where the intention of the contract is captured - the rest is really just the logistics of managing, enforcing and protecting it. Watching President Jacob Zuma answering questions in parliament last Thursday, as he is obliged to do at least four times a year, it was hard to believe he dips into it very often.
For a man with his traditionalist views, it must be very difficult to accept that his primary rival in the National Assembly, the leader of the official opposition is, though African, both young and a woman.
So, when Lindiwe Mazibuko tackled him on the principle of our labour law that gives all the bargaining power to a trade union that signs up 51% of the workforce, he could not bring himself to call her "Honourable Member", as the rules of the house require.
Calling her ntombazana, which means little girl, he said: "In a democratic situation, it is the majority that prevail. I can't change the rules because you want to make a particular point. You can't then say smaller unions must then be compared to the bigger unions in the same way."
Pressing his point, he gestured first towards the ANC benches and then to the DA benches and said: "You have more rights because you're a majority; you have less rights because you're a minority. That's how democracy works."
So, to the little yellow book: The first clause of the constitution says the founding values of our sovereign, democratic state include "a multiparty system of democratic government to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness".
The third clause - and we are still only on page three - says "all citizens are equally entitled to the rights, privileges and benefits of citizenship and equally subject to the duties and responsibilities of citizenship".
Clause nine, now under the Bill of Rights, defines equality more fully, including "the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms" and prohibits discrimination on any ground, specifically including race, sex, age or belief.
And in case there is any doubt, clause 36 of the Bill of Rights adds: "When interpreting any legislation, and when developing the common law or customary law, every court, tribunal or forum must promote the spirit, purport and objects of the Bill of Rights."
Zuma has in the past warned his ANC not to assume the constitution was "more important" than the party and has said it existed only to "regulate matters". Now, like George Orwell's Napoleon in Animal Farm, he appears to have recast the constitution in his own mind and to have adopted Orwell's catch-all commandment: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
His defence of the labour law provision that favours the National Union of Mineworkers over the rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union in the Marikana dispute is at odds with the constitutional provision for proportional representation as the basic principle of public representation.
The principle that parties are represented in parliament in proportion to the votes cast is not one of the founding principles, but the constitution does say the electoral system must result "in general in proportional representation".
The ANC shelved the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert's official report on a new electoral system, including some direct representation, because that would hamper its ability to control its MPs and public representatives. On the mines, however, democracy means the winner must take all, Zuma insisted last week.
Perhaps the president misspoke, or, as his hard-working spokesman Mac Maharaj argued, he was misconstrued. But there are increasing signs the ANC leadership and some, though not all, government ministers and officials are finding the constitution and the rights it guarantees inconvenient. A majority of us probably find Julius Malema obnoxious, irritating and possibly dangerous, but he does have the same constitutional rights as everyone else - including the right to address a gathering that has invited him to speak.
Yet this week we saw him turned away from the Marikana stadium where some 5000 miners had gathered. It appears he was gagged because he might engage in some criminal incitement.
There is no doubt he was there to incite the crowd, but in Marikana, as in parliament, the government, the police and we, the public, have to live with the onerous obligations of the constitution as much as we do under the shelter of its magnanimous principles.
If he breaks the law, arrest him, prosecute him and, if he refuses to moderate his behaviour, lock him up. But there is no law and nothing in the constitution that allows the police to cancel the fundamental right to freedom of speech because someone might break a law. Nor is there anything in the constitution that says little girls have lesser rights in the National Assembly - or anywhere else - than big men.