The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.61/No.1           January 6, 1997 
Mandela Signs New S. Africa Constitution  

WASHINGTON, D.C. - "Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.... The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth."

So states the Bill of Rights in South Africa's new constitution, signed into law by president Nelson Mandela December 10.

Registering the democratic gains achieved through decades of struggle by millions of South African workers and rural toilers, the document codifies the abolition of apartheid law and entrenches rights that can be used to push forward the democratic revolution.

The constitution is now the highest law in South Africa. With the December 10 signing ceremony, witnessed by a crowd of 4,000 people at Sharpeville, the Bill of Rights took immediate effect. The rest of the document's provisions are to be phased in over the next few months.

The location was symbolic. It was at Sharpeville, in 1960, that the police of the South African racist regime slaughtered 69 people protesting apartheid's "pass laws" -drawing a world outcry against white minority rule.

"By our presence here today, we solemnly honor the pledge we made to ourselves and to the world, that South Africa shall redeem herself and thereby widen the frontiers of human freedom," said Mandela during the signing of the constitution.

"A government of one nation," remarked Morris Goba from his post in the bleachers. The 16-year old high school student was referring to the conquests achieved in the battle to overturn the apartheid state - and build for the first time a South African nation in which all are citizens and equal before the law, regardless of race.

The Bill of Rights sets forth the need for affirmative action by and on behalf of the most oppressed South Africans. "To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken," it states.

The Bill of Rights also codifies the principle of land reform, leaving the door open to action by working people in the countryside not only to press for the return of land stolen from them by the apartheid regime, but also for obtaining access to agricultural land for all those who want to farm. It specifies that no provisions of the constitution "may impede the state from taking legislative or other measures to achieve land, water and related reform, in order to redress the results of past discrimination."

"Health care, food, water and social security," are also described as rights to which all South Africans are entitled to access by law. "No one may be refused emergency medical treatment," the document stipulates.

"Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education," asserts the Bill of Rights. Moreover, "Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions." The constitution establishes 11 official languages and places them all on equal footing before the law: Pedi, Sotho, Tswana, Swati, Venda, Tsonga, Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Xhosa, and Zulu.

The democratic sweep of the constitution is consistent with legislative measures taken by the African National Congress-led government to raze apartheid's maze of oppression. These steps include outlawing the death penalty, establishing free primary health care for all, creating a unitary system of education, establishing access to abortion for all women on demand during the first trimester of pregnancy at state expense, and advancing initial measures toward land restitution and reform.

The constitution replaces the interim document that had been in place since April 1994. Negotiations between the ANC-led democratic movement and the apartheid regime began in 1990, leading to the country's first nonracial elections in 1994.

The constitution was approved by the national parliament in May 1996. The Constitutional Court objected to several secondary elements of the document, sending it back for revisions. The week before it was signed, the court gave its final approval.

In other developments, Mandela announced December 13 that the cutoff date for applying for amnesty for political crimes committed under apartheid would be extended to May 10, 1997. The deadline had earlier been December 14. In addition, the cutoff date for crimes for which amnesty may be applied for has been moved from December 1996 to May 10, 1997.

The South African president called the announcement "one of the most difficult decisions I have had to take."

He remarked further that if it had been up to him alone, he would not have agreed to the extensions. Mandela said that after being lobbied by Alex Boraine, deputy chairman of the Truth Commission, and right-wing Freedom Front leader Constand Viljoen, the decision was necessary to "further consolidate nation building and reconciliation."

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