A simple explanation of the Rule of Law for South Africans

Chris Patterson | Oct 17, 2022
The rule of law is crucial to the efficient and effective operation of modern society. Without it, life would be one jumbled mess, where inequality reigned supreme and double standards were the order of the day.

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A simple explanation of the Rule of Law for South Africans

The rule of law is the basis on which modern society is built. It has its origins in Magna Carta, the Great Charter, agreed to by King John of England. Think of it as a historical Bill of Rights for individuals, most notably containing a commitment to “access to swift justice”. The rule of law is the most widely known concept in modern constitutional democracy, the concept that both the government and citizens know the law and obey it.

That’s it!

South Africa’s relationship with the rule of law has long been troubled. The legacy of colonialism and Apartheid runs deep in the way South Africans view law. Colonialism and Apartheid were morally unjustifiable and held to be crimes against humanity, yet the rule of law as a concept helped to keep the institutions of colonialism and Apartheid going for as long as they did, since people obeyed the law under both systems, and so conferred legitimacy to the governments enforcing those laws.

Parliamentary supremacy under National Party administrations arguably strengthened the rule of law, to the detriment of the oppressed, as it subjected them to arbitrary categorisation, dictated where they could and could not live, and determined who they could and could not marry. Not even the courts could protect them. Those who suffered under National Party rule were thus morally right in their opposition to these unjust laws because they never applied to them in the first place, as they were wilfully excluded on the grounds of being classed as unequal.

With our democratic dispensation bringing rights and equality to all who lived within South Africa’s borders, citizens, refugees, and immigrants from Namaqualand to the Lowveld could celebrate the new lease on life given to the rule of law. Its benefits are available to everyone, and all know what is expected of them, the government included. This is the textbook definition of the rule of law. It is also one of the very first provisions in South Africa’s Constitution. Specifically, Section 1 states: The Republic of South Africa is one, sovereign, democratic state founded on the following values: (c) Supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law.

All South African legislation passed by Parliament needs to conform with this document.

Despite the abhorrent disregard for this most venerable document by some individuals recently, the Constitution is the yardstick by which we are all measured, and therein lies our equality before the law. It does not matter whether you are the President of the Republic or a new-born child.

The rule of law is crucial to the efficient and effective operation of modern society. Without it, life would be one jumbled mess, where inequality reigned supreme and double standards were the order of the day. It is human nature to desire order, and that is exactly what the rule of law gives us.

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