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. The previous three versions were 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 like the ANC happened in February 1990 but there was much negotiation for a number of years prior to this date. Discussions had been taking place between the National Party, who had seen 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 92 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 then 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 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. After a month or so of delays a date was set for the negotiations, dubbed the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). 19 different political groups attended the convention, which took place on the 20th and 21st December. They 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 – it 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 years 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 40 years…

Images courtesy of www.npr.org, disa.ukzn.ac.za and www.sahistory.org.za

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