It took more than two years of negotiations and decades of sacrifice, but South Africa now has one of the most progressive and respected constitutions in the world. The constitution that now governs the country is the fourth version of the constitution in South Africa, but is the first to grant equal rights to all citizens, regardless of race or gender.
The first constitution for the Union of South Africa was adopted in 1910 when Britain decided to withdraw from the government of South Africa and handed the country over to the white residents of South Africa, namely the British settlers and the Boers. Fifty years later, in 1960, the white government held a referendum to decide whether South Africa would become a Republic, and on 31 May 1961 South Africa was declared a Republic and the government adopted its second constitution. In 1983 the government passed its third constitution, creating a tricameral parliament involving a separate parliament for the White, Coloured and Indian groups. This constitution excluded black people and automatically made them citizens of the homeland where they were born – black people had no rights outside of these homelands. Finally in 1994, South Africa adopted an interim constitution that gave the right to vote to everyone. The Constitutional Assembly was given the task of drawing up a final constitution, which was signed into law by President Nelson Mandela in Sharpeville on the 10th December 1996. The signing of the constitution in Sharpeville marked the closure of a chapter of exclusion and was seen by Mandela as an affirmation of the people’s determination to build a society of which all South Africans could be proud.
Last Saturday marked twenty years since this historic moment. President Jacob Zuma addressed the 5000-strong crowd at George Thabe Sports Ground in Sharpeville, where the celebrations were taking place, describing the constitution as the “birth certificate of a democratic nation”. The celebrations were preceded by the laying of wreaths at the Sharpeville Memorial Site in remembrance of the people who died on 21 March 1960 while protesting against the apartheid pass laws.
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