The exhibition ‘It’s a fine line’ demands a re-examination of our own racism and sexism, writes Zak Yacoob 


Thursday 17 March saw the auspicious celebration of a historic occasion marking 20 years of the South African Constitution at The Old Fort prison at Constitution Hill with guests including family members of history makers

such as Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Bram Fischer, Enoch Sontonga, John Dube and Pixley Seme. This milestone in our democracy launched an inspirational campaign calling on the nation to engage in dialogue, a campaign born out of the shared vision and exemplary relationship between Constitution Hill and The Ichikowitz Family Foundation.

It was an important and also very serious occasion unveiling IT’S A FINE LINE, a unique multi-media exhibition that immortalises people, places and events which laid the foundations for the country’s democracy that culminated in its renowned Constitution. We have looked at these drawings and the audio-visual material commissioned by Ivor Ichikowitz for Constitution Hill, and in my view, it is useful for us to consider carefully the relationship between the Fine Line and the dynamism of our Constitution.

These drawings represent people’s participation, they represent commitment, sacrifice, honour, lives being lost, and, of course torture. But on the other side what they represent is dynamic people and that’s where the Constitution comes from, dynamic human beings are the source of our Constitution.

It is vital for us to see these works of art as a whole and this is necessary because we see art as a fundamental weapon of change. Art must never be under-emphasised because it asks questions, it says many things to and for us, it brings change and gets us to change. And it is precisely because of this that art in apartheid South Africa was not particularly well regarded. When people painted the wrong things and said the wrong things and did the wrong things, they were ruthlessly stopped. I recall very many works of art that contributed to the achievement of our democracy in many, many ways, instilling courage, determination, insight and purpose. So art is a phenomenal medium and we need to understand how important that medium. Ultimately, it is art that unites the past, present and the future. Politics never can, constitutions never can, and that is indeed the power of art.

Now we must get to the Fine Line.

Everyone would like to say quite easily, and almost like a platitude, that that we have had twenty years of our democracy, we have achieved a great deal, we have much more to achieve, but actually we can be quite comfortable without asking too many questions. I would suggest that the Fine Line is not simply a description of the pencil that was used to make the line because the Fine Line itself asks a question, and it is a basic question.

The question it asks is this, we need in the process of taking stock today to look at the dreams and hopes of all those who have gone before, to look at our Constitution and determine how far we have gone. And the Fine Line has meaning because it asks the question: “How fine or how not fine is the line between where we should be and where we are?” How far have we really gone? And what the Fine Line exhibition does is to ask you to confront the question, looking at the hopes and dreams of all our people in the past and the present, and our constitution. Ultimately, we have to concede, in evaluating the line that it is not fine!

Our constitution says that everyone is equal, yet ninety-five percent of the people in our country believe that women are inferior to men. Indeed ninety percent of women believe that they are inferior to men!

Ninety-five percent of the people in our country, in their hearts, are more racist than not. There are lots of people who merely talk about racism in the country. But in my view we have to accept that ninety-five percent of the people in our country believe in their own racial superiority at one level or another. There is no modesty.

There is an elite, a small elite of five percent, who believe and think a little bit differently but that is the point of it. A well-known black politician, for example, said once, and everyone laughed at him, that he would go for a white lawyer because he actually thought that white lawyers are better. And you know, there are too many black people, we black people, who oppress ourselves when we think that whites are better.

Our constitution says everyone is equal, that gay and lesbian people are equal to everyone else. Ninety-nine percent of the people in our country believe that gay and lesbian people live in sin. They genuinely believe this!

And therefore there is and always has been a huge disconnect between the values of our constitution and the values of our society. We need to change that.

We need to change that by firstly looking into ourselves. I was a great racist and a sexiest once. I have had to work very hard to get over in my own heart the problems of racism and sexism. Now, even today, sexism still remains a problem. I have to admit to all of you that I still struggle with women and thinking of them as equal! We have to admit these things to ourselves so that we can work at them properly and appropriately.

It is very easy to say you are non-racist and non-sexist but to be these things and to embrace these values, we must first confront our own prejudices, study the Bill of Rights, understand it, embrace it, question ourselves and ensure that ultimately, first and foremost, we ourselves live and embrace the values of our constitution. This is precisely what the exhibition and the drawings in particular ask us to do. If we cannot do it, we cannot ask anyone else to do it. I understand and warn that it is going to be a huge struggle.

And the next step is ensuring that we start working with everyone else to engage in the same process because the Constitution did not create an equal society merely by its birth. The Constitution provided for us a launching pad through which we could go ahead and create an equal society, a launching pad by which we could persuade everyone to respect every other human being as equal. Indeed we have been given a duty by the constitution to contribute to achieving that society.

Above all, “It’s A Fine Line”, Constitution Hill and The Ichikowitz Family Foundation makes an important first step contributing to that process. The drawings and audio-visual material here from The Ichikowitz Family Foundation, in fact fulfil in my view, a constitutional obligation. So what do we need to do? We need to persuade ourselves; we need all of us to read the Bill of Rights every day. We need all of us to understand it- I actually wonder how many Parliamentarians in our country know the Bill of Rights? And I ask you the question straight forwardly. I read in my own mind, clauses of the Bill of Rights virtually every night. How many of you here understand the importance of dignity, equality and freedom? How many of us here understand the importance of humanity in our constitutional democracy?

So let us persuade ourselves first about the correctness of the Constitution. Let us read the Bill of Rights, let us embrace it. Let these works of art enable us to embrace it. Then let us start an important social movement through which, as a result of very hard work day in and day out, we’ll be able to say in ten years’ time, (that’s how long the task is) that some progress has been made.

If in ten years’ time I can stand at some place and say that only eighty percent of the people are racist, only eighty percent of the people are sexist, I think we would have done a wonderful job.

So let us be inspired, let us understand that my answer to the question is that the line is not so fine. Constitution Hill and the Ichikowitz Foundation launched a national campaign #IamConstitution to get South Africans to walk, talk and breath the Constitution. Let’s all embrace our Consttitution for the better of our nation.

Zakeria “Zak” Yacoob is a former justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. He was appointed to the bench in 1998 by Nelson Mandela. He briefly served as Acting Deputy Chief Justice. The Ichikowitz Family Foundation in partnership with Constitution Hill launches IT’S A FINE LINE exhibition at The Old Fort, Constitution Hill precinct, free of charge for audeinces till 30 April.