'The Constitution encapsulates the spirit South Africa'

The Constitution encapsulates the entire spirit of the new South Africa we embarked on in 1994. In a way, it reflects my naïve hopefulness at age 7, that everything will be alright, writes Alet Janse van Rensburg.

I was 7 years old when South Africa held its first democratic elections. I remember that year well, because it was the year I first went to school. Making new friends, learning how to write and doing math were high on my agenda. The country’s precarious political state was not.

What I do remember vaguely is that there was a sense of apprehension right before the election. The grownups must have been talking about it, because I remember asking my father who would win the election. Without a doubt the ANC, he said.

I thought about being scared of what would happen if there was a regime change, but I remember my father being positive about the upcoming events and that set my mind at ease. This was a good thing, I remember thinking.

On 27 April – the day of the election – he, my mother and our domestic worker, Flora, with her brand new identity document, got in the car to go to the voting station and that is the extent of my memories around the events.

Now that I think about it, it was perhaps the first awakening of my political consciousness. My perceptions of race relations were wholly informed by events after this – post-1994.

Only in the following years at school, around the dinner table, at university and later, as a journalist, I discovered the details of that crucial time in our country’s history. A part of that history that fascinates me to this day, was how the Constitution came into being.

I learnt that it took two years of many negotiations, deadlocks and interventions to draft the Constitution that would form the foundation of the new, democratic South Africa that allowed my mother, father and Flora to get into the car together that day.

It took six committees, each assisted by additional experts, months of tirelessly working on different aspects of the document, hammering out what would be our fundamental rights, and what the legal system, the structure of government and the democratic state would look like.

At last, some four million copies of the first draft were printed and distributed to the public for comment. Ordinary citizens debated the contents. Four more drafts were published. Just a week before the deadline the fifth draft was published, but there was still no consensus among the constituents on issues like property and lockout clauses. Urgent meetings were held, and President Mandela and Deputy President FW de Klerk had to step in to sheppard their constituents to a consensus.

Finally, 86% of those involved agreed on the final draft and it was submitted to the Constitutional Court. The court rejected it.

Again, representatives of all the political parties reconvened and a second text was sent to the Concourt. This time the court certified it and on 11 October 1996 the new Constitution was officially adopted.

It was a colossal effort – the product of sacrifice and firm belief of various, often opposing interest groups. The process enabled the multiple voices of the people of South Africa to be heard in an organised, meaningful and principled manner until finally everyone was satisfied that their interests would be protected by the law.

When President Nelson Mandela signed the Constitution into law at Sharpeville in Vereeniging on 10 December 1996, he said:

“…there could be no lasting peace, no lasting security, no prosperity in this land unless all enjoyed freedom and justice as equals.

“Out of the many Sharpevilles which haunt our history was born the unshakeable determination that respect for human life, liberty and well-being must be enshrined as rights beyond the power of any force to diminish.”

Today constitutionalism means that no office, institution or person is above the law. Both the most elevated and the lowest in society owe allegiance to the same principles contained in the Constitution. Government gains its authority from the people through the Constitution.

It encapsulates the entire spirit of the new South Africa we embarked on in 1994. In a way, it reflects my naïve hopefulness at age 7, that everything will be alright.

And while our democracy in its current state may have many shortcomings, there is peace of mind to be found in that.

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