The right to happiness in Africa

saul_lealAuthor: Saul Leal
Vice-Chancellor Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa (ICLA)

Leopold Sedar Senghor said: emotion is African.[1] This emotion has been channeled to constitutions. Happiness is a core value in many African constitutions. It was explicitly mentioned in Liberia, Namibia, Ghana, Nigeria, Swaziland, and Egypt.

Article 1 of the Constitution of Liberia, 1986, proclaims that all free governments are instituted by the people’s authority, for their benefit, and they have the right to alter and reform it when their safety and ‘happiness’ require it.[2] The preamble of the Egyptian Constitution, 2014, cites ‘a place of common happiness for its people’.   The Namibian Constitution, 1990, assures the right ‘to the pursuit of happiness’. In this regard, Frederick Fourie defends the preamble of the Namibian Constitution, explaining that it is coloured by the struggle against colonialism and racism; that it is built around the denial of the ‘right of the individual life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ by colonialism, racism and apartheid.[3]

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The tragic dialectic between happiness and apartheid

saul_lealAuthor: Saul Leal
Vice-Chancellor Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa (ICLA)

Some political speeches announce tragedies. In South Africa, the tragedy was announced during a radio broadcast on 17 March 1961, when the people heard the following statement: “The policy of separate development is designed for happiness, security, and stability (…) for the Bantu as well as the whites”. It was the first phrase proclaimed by the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, Hendrik Verwoerd, in his Address to the Nation. The policy of separate development would prove to be a scandalous euphemism. Verwoerd continued to promise that “we shall provide all our races with happiness and prosperity”.[1] Verwoerd would become known as “the architect of apartheid”.

The South African Governor-General was Supreme Chief in the Transvaal up until 1956. At that time, Cape Africans were considered too advanced to be treated as an underclass. Elizabeth Landis, an American expert on Southern Africa affairs, explains that the government had to change this consideration, with the explanation that ‘if we want to bring peace and happiness to the Native population (…) then we cannot do otherwise than to apply this principle which has worked so effectively in the other three provinces, to the Native population of the Cape as well (…)”.[2] Happiness therefore becomes a scapegoat.

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Happiness as constitutional empowerment in Nigeria

saul_lealAuthor: Saul Leal
Vice-Chancellor Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa (ICLA)

In Nigeria, happiness is understood as a Constitutional right and is more than a mere linguistic expression. Section 16(1)(b) of the Constitution provides that ‘the State shall, within the context of the ideals and objectives for which provisions are made in this Constitution, control the national economy in such a manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and “happiness” of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity’. Nigeria thus constitutionalized happiness as part as its movement toward to a sustainable economy. This prevents the interference of economy with the people’s happiness.[1]

Nigeria shows how commitment to peoples’ happiness is able to diminish the strength of money in areas which must not be sold, thus emphasizing that there are things that money cannot buy. The African collective trauma caused by the intense economic exploitation conducted by the colonial system shows its value by inserting limitative factor into a constitutional provision in order to face the eventual side effects of unlimited economic power. The Nigerian government’s decision to deregulate the pricing of petroleum, the nation’s most valuable asset, ended up in court in a case which reached landmark status.

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Happiness and same-sex affection

saul_lealAuthor: Saul Leal
Vice-Chancellor Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa (ICLA)

Chinelo Okparanta is a Nigerian writer, currently living as a citizen in the United States. She understands the prejudices of her native country, especially against homosexuals. In some parts of Nigeria, a gay individual may be stoned to death under the Shari’a law. Okparanta writes, in her lesbian romance Happiness like Water, ‘yes, our love may be hidden, but it is strong. It can still bring happiness’.[1]

Why must the love between two consenting adults be hidden? Should the State have the power to decide towards whom one may show affection? These disconcerting questions may be answered in terms of global Constitutions.

The most important Brazilian decision which entailed the right to happiness was in 2011.[2] The Supreme Court had to rule on the interpretation to be given to article 1.723 of the Civil Code, which only recognizes a common-law relationship between a man and a woman as a family unit which must be public knowledge, continuous, and long-lasting, and be established for the purpose of building a family. The need for the aforementioned ruling resulted from the fact that government bodies refused to grant these rights to homo-affectionate couples. Therefore, the Court had to decide if this union also covered same-sex couples, even though the provision expressly mentions ‘man and a woman’.[3]

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Constitutional jurisdiction and the right to happiness

saul_lealAuthor: Saul Leal
Vice-Chancellor Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa (ICLA)

Should it be a role of the Judiciary to assure happiness for the people? Is it appropriate for a Constitutional Court to consider happiness to be a right? Does the establishment of fundamental rights expand the collective happiness? To answer these questions, it is essential to examine the root of Constitutional jurisdiction.

Karl Loewenstein questioned whether the Constitution would be “instrumental for the pursuit of happiness of the people”,[1] based on his intrigue into the purpose and meaning of a Constitution. He is accompanied by Hans Kelsen, for whom “the longing for justice is man’s eternal longing for happiness”.[2]

The answer to the aforementioned questions lies within the examination of the Constitution of the State of Pennsylvania, in the United States, in 1776, in order to address the power given to the courts to assess the constitutionality of the laws and of normative acts.

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Biko and the right to happiness

saul_lealAuthor: Saul Leal
Vice-Chancellor Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa (ICLA)

Stephen Bantu Biko occupies a singular place in South African history, precisely because of the manner in which his legacy affected South African constitutionalism.

Biko fought for equal treatment under the law, and proudly founded the Black Consciousness Movement in order to achieve this goal. Biko engaged in a fearless debate related to the victims of racism and colonialism which encompassed the degradation of self-esteem and the inflicted inferiority complex of black South Africans. Biko’s struggle against white authority in order to promote and defend democracy has left a legacy of ideas which would influence future South African generations, including the sentiment of “one man, one vote”.

In 1970, Steve Biko stated that “in order to achieve real action you must yourself be a living part of Africa and of her thought; you must be an element of that popular energy which is entirely called forth for freeing, the progress and the happiness of Africa”.[1] At the time, Biko was a doctoral student and political activist. He was arrested in August 1977. Biko was kept naked and manacled, and died twenty-five days later from brain damage.

Biko envisioned a more inclusive and deeper interpretation of democracy, as opposed to its purely material application. For him, “material want is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty it kills. And this latter effect is probably the one that creates mountains of obstacles in the normal course of emancipation of the black people”.[2]

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