The South African Constitutional Court and Socio-Economic Rights as 'Insurance Swaps'

Tom Ginsburg
Rosalind Dixon

The political origins of various civil and political rights have been clearly theorized by Tom Ginsburg and others in work on the "insurance-based" function of judicial review in new democracies. To date, however, there has been relatively little work on the political origins of socioeconomic or second generation rights, such as rights to housing or health-care. The essay attempts to fill this gap, by expanding existing insurance-based theories to account for the potential insurance swap-based function of such rights for left-wing parties to constitutional negotiations, when making concessions on the scope of a property rights clause. Such an account, the essay suggests, fits closely with the actual drafting of ss. 25-29 of the 1996 South African Constitution, and thus also has potential implications for the interpretation of such provisions by the South African Constitutional Court. From an originalist perspective, at least, it suggests that in cases involving a potential conflict between property and other socioeconomic rights, courts should attempt to balance the two sets of rights in as context-sensitive a way as possible, and in other cases, to attempt to preserve scope for such an approach, by reasoning narrowly, or avoiding broad statements in favor of either a highly deferential or expansive approach to the definition of such rights. This also accords surprisingly well, the essay suggests, with the actual approach of the South African Constitutional Court in various cases decided in the 2010 Term on socioeconomic rights, such as Musjid, Abhali, Gudwana, as well as in many earlier cases.