Negotiating the Constitution (Part One)

As we celebrate Human Rights Day tomorrow, it seems an appropriate time to examine the very document that forms the core of South Africa’s democracy, and the protection of its citizens, our Constitution.

The Constitution of South Africa is currently in its fourth incarnation, with the previous three constitutions being adopted in 1910, 1961 and 1983 respectively. Our current constitution however, is the very first to address the rights of the entire population, with the previous versions largely favouring the white, Christian, patriarchal minority. As such it is viewed as the first Constitution of the Democratic Republic of South Africa.

The eventual unbanning of political parties in February 1990 saw a change in the tide, but plans were already afoot for a number of years prior to this date. Negotiations had been taking place between the National Party, who had come to see the writing on the wall, and the ANC who were committed to as peaceful and fair a transition as possible. It had taken nearly two years of talks between the two parties, but finally the path to multilateral negotiations seemed to be clear. The only remaining obstacle was to agree what the parties would be negotiating.

On the 25th October 1991 more than 400 delegates, representing some ninety-two organisations, converged in Durban to launch the Patriotic Front, a loose alliance of parties who held an anti-apartheid position. Their main point of departure was that it was necessary to form an interim government in order to facilitate the transfer of power, as the current government was not qualified to oversee the process of democratising South Africa. It was proposed that the interim government would control the security forces, the electoral process, state media, as well as certain areas of the national budget.

Following on from the success of the Patriotic Front, it was decided that the the first multi-party constitutional talks would take place towards the end of the year at the World Trade Centre in Johannesburg, and after a month or so of delays a date was set for the negotiations, dubbed the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). The convention, which took place on the 20th and 21st December, was attended by 19 different political groups, who all voted in support of the Declaration of Intent to set in motion the process of drawing up and establishing a new constitution. Despite the PAC walking out of the talks – the PAC was concerned that all decisions would be subject to bilateral agreements made between the National Party and the ANC – the first CODESA was deemed a success:

Today we celebrate. After almost two year’s of waiting, representatives of former and current enemies will sit around a table at the All party Conference to forge a path to democracy in South Africa” The Weekly Mail, 29th November 1991

But the public meeting held in Durban earlier in the year had had an enormous impact on the negotiations, because it shifted political balance in favour of the ANC. This was the first time since the National Party had embarked on the path of a negotiated solution that it was confronted with the difficult reality that it may have to relinquish the power it had enjoyed for over forty years…..

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