Constitution under threat?

Our Constitution has been hailed everywhere as an example to all divided societies of what can be achieved by rational debate, compromise and goodwill, but now it seems as if the ANC wants to sweep all of this away, warns former state president FW de Klerk.

Constitution under threat?
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"In November 1993, South Africans reached an agreement on the kind of country we wanted to become. After three years of difficult negotiations we agreed that we wanted a society in which the Constitution – and not the majority of the day – would be sovereign. We agreed that the Constitution should make full provision for the protection of all our fundamental rights; that we would have free and independent courts; and that we would establish a truly democratic system of government subject to the rule of law.

We all agreed on the need for transformation – on the rapid development of our people toward equality, human dignity and the full enjoyment of rights. We also agreed on the need to protect our languages and cultures and to ensure that no one could be arbitrarily deprived of their property. Parties representing some 90% of our people – and substantial majorities in all our communities – endorsed the constitutional accord. We reached agreement despite our deeply divided and traumatic history. 

We succeeded despite all the crises, the walk-outs, the violence and the reality that we all had to make painful concessions.
Our achievement was rightly regarded by the world as one of the crowning glories of the latter part of the 20th century. It was seen everywhere as an example to all divided societies of what could be achieved by rational debate, compromise and goodwill.

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But in discussion papers for its upcoming policy conference, the ANC announced that it wants to sweep all of this away. It believes that the balance of power nationally and globally has shifted sufficiently for it to dispense with the compromises that it had made in 1993 and 1996.

According to Jeff Radebe, the ANC’s policy chief, “our first transition embodied a framework and a national consensus that may have been appropriate for political emancipation, a political transition, but has proven inadequate and inappropriate for our social and economic transformation phase.” Radebe also announced that the ANC plans to dispense with some of the cornerstones of our new society.

In line with the controversial Green Paper on Land Reform, property rights will also be at risk. Other cornerstones of the constitutional accord that are already under threat include language rights; the right to education in the language of one’s choice; freedom of expression; and the right to access information. Most seriously, the government is manoeuvring to limit the role of the courts.
None of this should come as a surprise, since the ANC is simply implementing the next step in its National Democratic Revolution. The National Party did not agree to the transition naively or with its eyes closed to the ideological nature of the tripartite alliance. It realised that the ANC might one day withdraw from its solemn undertakings. However, it believed that, in addition to the guarantees we had negotiated into the Constitution, there were other powerful forces that would help to ensure that all parties would honour our accord:

  • The collapse of the Soviet Union had swept the ideological ground from under the feet of communists all over the world.
  • A new global consensus had developed on the fundamentals of democratic governance and responsible fiscal and economic policy. No government could afford to ignore these new international norms.
  • We also hoped that, as the ANC became accustomed to the complexities of government, it would quietly abandon its outmoded ideologies.

Finally, we realised that, just as we could not govern the country against the will of the majority, a majority government would not be able to rule effectively if the fundamental rights of minorities were being violated. Our symbiotic relationship dictated that, whether we liked it or not, we would have to work together to achieve success. We would have been foolish not to seize this unique opportunity for a just and honourable settlement.

The subsequent 18 years have proved that this was the right decision. As the ANC itself points out, South Africa has made substantial progress in so many areas. Our country is respected in Africa and throughout the world as an inspiring example of non-racial democracy. Despite all its faults, it’s a far better and a far more just country than it was in the past.

We have indeed not made nearly enough progress in addressing unacceptable levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment.  However, these transformation failures cannot be ascribed to our Constitution. They are primarily the consequence of inappropriate policies.

Evidently, the ANC now wants to jeopardise all of this. It imagines that it can write off the influence of free market democracies and align itself instead with China, Russia and its friends in Cuba. It thinks that it can invent a new approach to economic development that will free it from the need for the fiscal responsibility it practised to such good effect for the first 17 years of its rule.

It thinks, most dangerously, that it can treat minorities as it pleases and impose new forms of discrimination against them in line with its ideology of National Democratic Revolution. It is wrong. Any move to abandon the solemn national consensus we reached during the constitutional negotiations will destroy the brave foundations for national unity, democracy and transformation we’ve developed since 1994.

It will slash open once again the divisions of the past and divide the country along racial lines. Once the powers of independent courts have been sufficiently diluted, we’ll see the end of the prospect of a society based on democratic values and fundamental human rights.

There are many other matters in the discussion papers that are problematic, but I have dealt here only with some key issues. Radebe invites “all sectors of South African society and our people at large to engage with these discussion documents” because they “will have a profound bearing on the future development of this nation.”

In this spirit, I would like to renew my request to the government to hold genuine discussions on these issues with those elements of our society – from all communities – who continue to support the constitutional consensus that the ANC now wishes to discard.

Adapted from a document issued by the FW de Klerk Foundation.

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.