S. Africa approves constitution Weeks of wrangling end with passage ahead of deadline


CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Two years after electing Nelson Mandela the country's first black president, South Africa's Parliament yesterday gave the country a new constitution that permanently enshrines the principles of nonracial democracy in what was once the land of apartheid.

"And so it has come to pass that South Africa today undergoes her rebirth, cleansed of a horrible past, matured from a tentative beginning, and reaching out to the future with confidence," Mandela told the Parliament after the vote.

"Never and never again shall the laws of our land rend our people apart or legalize their oppression and repression," Mandela said.

After weeks of intense and often heated wrangling as the two-year deadline approached, final passage was assured only hours before the vote when the former ruling National Party agreed to join Mandela's majority African National Congress in supporting the document.

That cleared the way for yesterday's session to be another in the series of moving ceremonies that have marked this country's remarkable journey from pariah to hero on the world's stage.

"The trial run is over. Now we are ready to begin the real race to our destination," said National Party leader F. W. de Klerk, the last white president of South Africa, who pre-sided over the end of apartheid. "Within the framework of this constitution we face the challenge to normalize our society, to turn our backs on the bitterness of the past, to build and develop, to bring a better life to all our people."

De Klerk, who is also deputy president, made clear that his party had serious objections to the constitution, but decided to vote for it "irrespective of its many shortcomings from our vantage point."

In impromptu remarks added after he finished his prepared text, Mandela exhorted the group to look beyond the narrow concerns that often divided them.

"When you talk to whites, they seem to think only whites exist and look at problems from the point of view of whites," he said. "They forget that blacks exist also.

"That's one problem, but we have another problem. When you talk to blacks they make the same mistake, thinking that whites do not exist. Both tendencies are wrong. We must rise above these ethnic groups and think in terms of South Africa as a whole," he said.

After the vote, the ANC members of the assembly spontaneously burst into song, swaying as they robustly sang a traditional freedom anthem, while the mainly white members of other parties sat silently or applauded awkwardly.

When the assembly adjourned, its members gathered on the front steps of the Parliament building for a public celebration. Mandela spoke to a crowd of several thousand who crowded the area beneath the impressive facade of Table Mountain.

A choir sang the official song of the new constitution, "One Law for One Nation," which will be played on state radio to spread awareness of the document. A colorful 55-foot-high mural depicting the journey to the constitution was uneviled on a nearby building.

The constitution replaces an interim version worked out by negotiators before the 1994 election that put this Parliament in office.

Those negotiators, who imposed the two-year deadline, agreed that the final constitution had to be passed by a two-thirds majority of the Constitutional Assembly, which is made up of the 490 members of both houses of Parliament. The ANC has just over 60 percent of the members; thus it needed votes from the National Party, which has 99 members.

Final vote

In the end, the vote was 421 in favor, two against and 10 abstentions. The no votes came from the African Christian Democratic Party, which said the constitution should be based on biblical principles. The abstentions were members of the Afrikaner Volksfront, which seeks a separate homeland for Afrikaners, descendants of the original Dutch settlers.

Most of the absentees were the 48 members from the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party, who boycotted virtually the entire two-year sitting of the Constitutional Assembly, protesting the lack of international mediation on the status of the Zulu king. It was the promise of such mediation that secured Inkatha's participation in the 1994 election only a week before the vote.

If the two-thirds majority had not been reached, the constitution would probably have been subject to a divisive and expensive public referendum.

A 60 percent vote would have been needed to pass it there and if that had not been reached, the current government would have left office and a new one would have been elected to give it another try.

Most of the final controversies were over issues of concern to the country's white-dominated business sector.

One such issue involved provisions of the right-to-property clause that the National Party and the Democratic Party wanted changed to ensure that the government pays fair market value for any land taken to right the wrongs of apartheid. Another was an attempt to include a right-to-lockout clause to go along with a right-to-strike clause. The ANC allowed small wording changes but yielded nothing substantive.

In addition, the National Party wanted the right to single-language schools included, a popular issue among its constituents who send their children to Afrikaans-speaking schools. The ANC opposed this as an attempt to retain apartheid education policies and only altered the wording of the education section slightly.

The Democratic Party, once the lone anti-apartheid voice in the whites-only Parliament but seen as the voice of big business in this one, did get a provision in the education section that allows the government to aid private schools.

As much as anything, it was business considerations that assured the final passage. With the South African currency, the rand, having lost close to 20 percent of its value since the beginning of the year -- a fall that started with a rumor that Mandela was ill -- no one wanted confidence further shaken by a constitutional crisis.

The rand fell further yesterday despite the constitution's passage reportedly because of rumors that the National Party might withdraw from the government because of its dissatisfaction with the final version.

Before the 138-page document becomes the law of the land it must be certified by the Constitutional Court as abiding by the 34 constitutional principles that were included in the interim constitution. The National Party and the Democratic Party have said they will make submissions to the court seeking modifications to the property and education sections.

Little immediate change

When it is finally signed into law, probably by September, little will change immediately. Though this constitution does away with the so-called Government of National Unity, which puts members of both the National Party and Inkatha in the Cabinet with the ANC, that does not take place until the next election in 1999, when the majority party will rule alone.

The new constitution also turns the Parliament's Senate into the National Council of Provinces, giving it expanded powers over matters concerning provincial governments, South Africa's equivalent of state governments.

The more far-reaching changes will await rulings by the Constitutional Court, the equivalent of the United States' Supreme Court. The constitution grants bill-of-rights status to housing, health care, food and water -- all of which most blacks had only in the worst quality before the end of apartheid.

The constitution says the state must take "reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of each of these rights." The court will undoubtedly be called upon to rule if the state is doing just that.

In addition, the constitution makes the bill of rights applicable not just to government, but to individuals and businesses as well, an area that will undoubtedly spawn lawsuits in a society that, up to now, has not been very litigious.

Pub Date: 5/09/96

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