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Reflections on The Bill of Rights

Launched in Parliament this week celebrating 20 years of the South African constitution Launched in Parliament this week celebrating 20 years of the South African constitution

10 December 2016

Nkosikhona Duma

Durban, South Africa- December 10, 2016, marks twenty years since Nelson Mandela signed into law the South African constitution. The book entitled “Reflections on the Bill of Rights” comes at the perfect time. 

Published by the SA parliament, it carries the views and experiences of some of the men and women who penned Chapter 2 of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. 

It features contributors including South African State President Jacob Zuma, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Willie Hofmeyr (Deputy National Director of Public Prosecutions), Dr. Leon Wessels (former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission), Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, the late Dene Smuts (the longest serving female MP in SA history) and Higher Education and Training Minister, Dr. Blade Nzimande.

At onset, the book clearly depicts that extraordinary commitment, political vigour, patience, skill and intellect were prerequisites on all participants to undertake the historical task of formulating South Africa’s highest rule of law, regarded as one of the best constitutions in the world. 

In it, CEO of the Constitutional Assembly, Hassen Ebrahim noted that the big task was to calm the fears of the minorities and yet found favour with the majority. 

Reading the book makes one comprehend that the clearly depicted complex Constitutional negotiation process of 1994-1996 renders it too simplistic to call the negotiators sell-outs.

There clearly could never have been one winner. Compromises had to take place. No lawmaker could claims to have fully satisfied their constituency. The constitution emerged as a compromise and this book provides the reasons why.

It is further revealed that the earlier political negotiations of the 1980s and early 1990s played a great role in guiding the work of the Constitutional negotiators.

Former National Party (NP) MP Shiela Camerer called constitutional negotiation period “frenetic”.  The book leaves one to consider the mood in the country at that time, the fact that the majority of ANC lawmakers had no experience of governance and that a sizeable contingent of white MPs were from the National Party. The success in formulating the constitution was, indeed, a ‘miracle’.

Ultimately, the book is a great historical installation. It offers concise but imperative accounts of the action of 1994-1996 directly from key protagonists.

It details how South Africans from all walks of life thrived in jubilation after the promulgation of the constitution. The evil of Apartheid had seemingly been halted. Herein, finally, a document that sought to preserve human dignity, affirm human rights, ensure equality and redress the imbalances imposed by Apartheid. 

The book is heavily political in nature. In it, negotiators downplay the failure of the constitution in advancing radical change set to the benefit the previously disadvantaged black section of population. 

Baleka Mbethe wastes no time in announcing that the legislation to amend the Expropriation Act is now finalized. 

IFP MP, Albert Mncwango, takes a swipe at the ANC about the violence in KwaZulu-Natal. 

Blade Nzimande talks about how NSFAS has helped over a million students and how this government remains committed to an inclusive education system. 

Not many pages apart, the late Dene Smuts seeks to promote the ‘resilience of liberal democracy.’

The fact is twenty years after the promulgation of the constitution, the democratic transition honeymoon phase has passed. The stagnant economy of the country cannot be divorced from its tumultuous and uncertain political scenery. The demonstration of anger and loss of patience by the people has resulted in South Africa being ranked as the most protest rich country in the world.  And well, apart from the addition of a few privileged blacks into the South African elite social and economic circles, society remains untransformed and racist incidents keep on mushrooming everywhere.

The men and women who wrote South Africa’s constitution are very much aware of this. This is evident in the book. Perhaps a great admission emanates from South African Ambassodor to Namibia Mavivi Myakayaka-Manzini who concludes on these words:

“very little dialogue has been taking place on the challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment we still face, and on our political differences.  We still have to make our Constitution a living document respected by all.”