#HackTheConstitution: An FAQ

1. What inspired the development of HackTheConstitution?

HackTheConstution came about as a result of a couple of conversations earlier in the year about the work of the ConCourt. In the space of a few months, it passed judgements on housing issues, the Vodacom Please Call Me case and Thuli Madonsela’s Nkandla report. Everyone from the poorest citizens to the president of the country was judged by the Court, and while news headlines were full of its work, it dawned on us that few people – including the journalists writing about it – really understood its mandate. Why was Please Call Me a Constitutional issue, for example? More worryingly, it also became apparent that a lot of people would like to change the Constitution if they could – President Zuma spoke in the house of elders about legal mechanisms like the Constitution not being “African”, and opposition parties in the run up to the local elections also talked about changing the Constitution as part of their electioneering propoganda.

It all seemed curious to us, so we looked into a bit more.

2.       Why are you doing this work? What benefit does it have for South Africans?

What we found was this: South Africa has a model Constitution which is held up by the rest of the world as an exemplary legal document, one of the best of its kind. After the end of Aparthied, the authors of the Constitution wanted to create a document that guaranteed the horrors of that period could not ever happen again. It is thorough, it is not overly dense in terms of legal language and it absolutely guarantees that everyone is entitled to the same rights and considerations before the law. It has allowed South Africa to be world leaders in fields of equality (like gay marriage) and is used almost daily to win rights for those who need its protection most.

Yet many in the corridors of power constantly seek to undermine it, to suggest that it was created in this way because of the end of Apartheid, and is now too limiting and has served its purpose. That it is “of its time” and that time has passed because other challenges now face the country.

Here’s the thing: as the author and online activist Corey Doctorow points out, Constitutions are almost always a “Ulysses pact”. They’re written at a time when countries are emerging from a dark period of war, revolution or other birthing mechanism that creates nation states. They always seek to prevent the past from happening again, and that’s why we should think very carefully about changing them.

What we realised was that while South Africans celebrated the new Constitution when it was written, and it became an integral part of the “Rainbow Nation” story, the sense of national pride it helped to instill was dwindling. And that’s because – unlike in the United States, for example – the Constitution isn’t much read by people any more. It’s not taught in schools, it’s not a part of citizenship tests and there’s a general lack of understanding that it really is the ultimate law of the land from which all others follow.

Part of the issue is that there are no tools available for educating people about the Constitution. There’s a huge gap in terms of resources, and while many good ideas have been put forward to fill it, few have really succeeded well.

3.       What are the far reaching/long term goals of the project?

We have several goals. The most basic one is that we want to create a resource where you can quickly search the text of the Constitution and find helpful annotations that explain what jargon like “non-derogable” means, or an explanation of how the SABC’s charter and the role of its CEO flows from its reference in the Constitution (is it Constitutional to censor the news?). By including bits of case law and Constitutional Court judgements, we think we’ll build a resource that can be used in schools or by journalists looking for background information on the role of the Constitution and its meaning.

There have been other attempts to do this, but the problem is that they aren’t very interesting or engaging. So we also want to use the same platform to make the Constitution engaging again, and a source of pride. So we’ll be opening up the annotations for anyone to upload their stories relating to the Constitution: if your community has won housing or access to water, for example, we want photos, videos and text about it. We think this will inspire others to do the same and help to bring some under-reported stories to the fore too.

We also want to make it work in all 11 languages. And eventually we hope to use the same platform to open up inforrmation and discussion about other laws or proposed laws too. How great would it be to have a platform like this to discuss the Cybercrimes Bill, or the Film & Publications Board Amendment Bill?

4.       What other projects have inspired you to do this, both locally and abroad?

We’ve worked with people from the ConCourt and the #IAmConstitution Campaign, who have inspired us to keep going. The work of Code4Africa and Code4SouthAfrica is also tremendously inspiring. Overseas, we’ve been looking at how organisations like MySociety use online tools to democratise information, and the Open Government Partnership too. Here in South Africa the Parliamentary Monitoring Group and OpenByelaws have also provided insight and vision, and especially Arthur Atwell’s MyConstitution.co.za project, which put the text of the Constitution online for the first time in some languages.

5.       How can South Africans participate in initiatives like this?

There’s loads of groups which encourage “tech for good” if you know where to find them. Your local Hacks/Hackers chapter is a good place to start, and Code4SA has some great individuals working for it too. Look out for hackathons run by government departments too – they’re all really keen to get new ideas and innovations up and running by bringing together lots of people with different skills to think about how to tackle local problems with technology.