Cape Town - When President Nelson Mandela bid Parliament farewell on March 26, 1999, he described the national legislature, and its provincial counterparts, as “the instruments that have been fashioned to create a better life for all”.
“It is here that oversight of government has been exercised. It is here that our society with all its formations has had an opportunity to influence policy and its implementation,” he told parliamentarians that day, saying the first democratically elected MPs had “ensured this Parliament is not a rubber stamp in the hands of government, and have given birth to a new democratic, political culture”.
And Mandela, who had walked into the House five years earlier accompanied by then deputy presidents Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk, added: “For my part, I wish to say that it has been a profound privilege to be accountable to this Parliament. Though there is sadness in leave taking, I am filled with contentment by the sounds of voices that I have heard in the many debates that I have attended in this National Assembly, in the Senate and in its successor, the National Council of Provinces.”
Former Speaker Frene Ginwala, the first woman in that position, remembered Mandela’s instruction that there could be no disruptions as the ANC viewed Parliament as a key institution. It was to be run in the same inclusive way as the negotiations for the democratic transition and it had to be democratic, open and inclusive - a people’s Parliament.
“Mr Mandela himself had a great deal of respect for Parliament... he would come and attend (as a visitor as he resigned his seat on being elected president). He would occasionally send a note to me, saying he’d like to speak. I told him he didn’t have to ask permission,” Ginwala said.
Parliament under Mandela’s presidency from 1994 to 1999 dramatically, and irrevocably, changed South Africa’s political and governance landscape - and itself.
Among the first institutional changes was to have proceedings televised. And in the spirit of reconciliation, the front benches were reserved for party political leaders.
“If people could see their leaders sitting there, they could then start to buy in,” said Ginwala.
Until 1994, the national legislature sat for only six months a year and all its committees worked behind closed doors. Only select white staff had permanent contracts. After 1994, Parliament’s work in both committees and plenary sittings was opened to the public, rules were revised and visitors were welcome - as were trade unions.
As the 490 parliamentarians rolled up their sleeves to get rid of old apartheid laws and pass laws to establish a legislative framework for the democratic South Africa - the national legislature passed an average of 100 laws a year during its first term - work also started on the constitution.
In a gargantuan effort, and unprecedented public consultations, the final text of what then constitutional assembly chairman Cyril Ramaphosa described as “the birth certificate of the nation” was adopted in October 1996.
On December 10, after the Constitutional Court approved it, Mandela signed the constitution into effect.
“In writing the words which today become South Africa’s fundamental law, our elected representatives have faithfully heard the voice of the people,” he said at the signing ceremony in Sharpeville.
Like many MPs, comrades who became “Honourables”, but also longtimers, described the times of the first Parliament as exciting, incredible and transformative. “It was exciting. We had not seen Parliament before - from the outside, yes, but not from inside,” recalls Max Sisulu, today the Speaker, but who arrived in 1994 as MP.
Veteran ANC MP Professor Ben Turok said it was “absolutely amazing”. One felt present at history, he said. Mandela was a unifier. “Whenever he spoke in the House, everybody was behind him. There was no heckling, no nasty comments. That brought people together in a way that is, perhaps, absent now.”
Former Democratic Party, later DA, chief whip Douglas Gibson, also a former ambassador to Thailand, said the five-year period from 1994 was the hardest he had ever worked. “That was a transformative term of Parliament. We passed masses of legislation that radically altered South Africa... I found it hugely stimulating and satisfying. That period is the best period I’ve had in my whole political life.”
Former serjeant-at-arms Godfrey Cleinwerck announced Mandela’s first arrival in the National Assembly in 1994 and, having served under six presidents, said there were many, welcomed changes: “It was more stiff and more formal (previously)... hand-clapping and singing were all new to us.”
Cleinwerck also led Mandela, waving to the public gallery, from the House after his March 1999 farewell.
Saying his goodbyes Mandela told Parliament that day: “Look at the work of the committees that have scrutinised legislation and improved it... given the public insight and oversight of government as never before. A record which we can be proud of.”