CONSTITUTION COMMITTEE - ROELF MEYER AND CYRIL RAMAPHOSA DATE: 07/10/96 PHOTO: OBED ZILWA

People of South Africa provided the Government of National Unity’s committee with direction, writes Janet Smith.

Johannesburg - The writers of the Constitution had two years to put together the most important document in South African history.

The first day was May 9, 1994, the Monday on which the Government of National Unity (GNU) sat for the first time. Perhaps we have forgotten just how momentous it was: the National Party, with some apartheid relics and some “verligtes” sitting alongside the revolutionaries and communists of the ANC, whose party had won a resounding victory in the election just 12 days earlier.

Everyone committed themselves to the existing interim constitution on that day in Parliament, but that joy, and that sense of possibility, was mediated by the deadline of the day that lay ahead: May 8, 1996.

That was the date on which a team, led by former trade unionist, ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa and verligte NP stalwart Leon Wessels, would have to present the blueprint for a country which would, for years afterwards, be known as the Rainbow Nation.

It’s now legendary that members of that team thought it might be possible to do the work in a few months. Such was their commitment not only to a new, democratic nation, but also to each other, that their optimism in 1994 exceeded all else.

But most important, perhaps, was that the committee also had us, the people of South Africa, behind them, and it was we who were to provide them with the direction in which the constitution needed to go. Significant outreach programmes took leaders of the constitutional process all over the country so that opinion could be harvested and ordinary people educated about a brave new future.

Codesa had a been a hard, fraught battle, divided by ideology and distracted by serious violence going on outside. Just a year or so before the Constitutional Assembly gathered, a second phase of negotiations had broken down in Kempton Park.

Making a constitution would be a different process, but no less complex in many ways. Those ideological differences would prevail. Each party, but especially the NP and the ANC was carefully considering how to protect its own interests once the GNU expired in 1999.

Dissension was rife over whether South Africa should be declared a Christian country, as it was during apartheid, while the role of traditional leaders troubled the constitution-makers, as it still troubles us today. There were divides over how central government would relate to the provinces. The shape and powers of the judiciary were heavily contested. The location of Parliament became a tussle. The rights of minority parties to have some control over how the majority behaved became emotional.

Debate was intense - and remains - over issues like dominant languages, education, capital punishment, abortion, same-sex unions and, predominantly, labour rights, ownership of property and, broadly, land. Land and property were also the focus of business delegations, which sought to be heard at the eleventh hour. And, following their pleadings, workers and land rights activists marched on Parliament with petitions that sought to diminish the privileges which those business delegations had so desperately sought.

Head-banging, however polite, was real in those committees, and although a first draft from the technical committee was set to be handed over in August 1995, a six-month delay was contemplated.

Yet, by the bloody-mindedness of key players, a draft was ready by October, only two months late, with the significant help of Canadian lawyer Phil Knight, who made the complex issues sound relatively simple.

That was not to say the issuing of the draft led to smooth-sailing towards May 8, 1996. On the contrary, the NP was recalcitrant on many points. So was the DP. But, again, consensus was reached to the point that a working draft could be published before Christmas 1995, thereafter giving us, the people, a chance to make submissions before the end of February.

Twenty years is perhaps too long a time to retain all the memories of what happened in 1995 and 1996, but it is remarkable to note how widespread, and even tech-savvy, the efforts were to get South Africans to comment. There was even a website to which people could contribute and receive information.

By March 1996, a three-part process was agreed before the constitution would be adopted. First, it would appear as a bill, then proposed amendments and compromises would be discussed before those were given to the Constitutional Assembly.

The last step would be a vote on the new constitution. Refinements would be thrashed out at a tough, exhaustingmeeting in Arniston, to which only the main individuals were invited. And then came the final two weeks before the handing over of the bill. Few slept, and Ramaphosa had to show the mettle for which he had become admired - and world-famous.

A particularly important date was April 18, 1996, out of which any outstanding disagreements, especially the arguments over property and minority rights, would have to be resolved.

Finally, it was Blade Nzimande, on behalf of the ANC, who would, at last, read the carefully-negotiated words of the Preamble.

Thereafter came the Draft Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Bill, which was at last put to the Constitutional Assembly on April 22. In the background, however, Cosatu was planning a mass 24-hour strike over how labour was treated in the document, and the rand was looking weak.

The Constitutional Assembly discussed the bill for two days, and many amendments were added before a first reading could be had. It took a meeting at Mahlamba Ndlopfu, where President Nelson Mandela had been resident for a year, to attempt to reach fresh, definitive consensus.

But by April 29, there was still significant dissension, with particularly the IFP - which was still outside the process - and the FF expressing anger and disappointment with what was unfolding.

Cosatu held its strike on April 30, and by May 2, the politicians had decided there had to be a final deadline of the following day to avert profound crisis.

Discussions went on until the night of Sunday May 4, cutting so close to the wire that nerves were frayed even as diplomacy seemed to hold steady and the country was being reminded that May 8 was imminent.

That would remain the date upon which all South Africans could feel assured that their long-awaited new nation had arrived.

The next two days were agonising, as the Constitutional Assembly debated and negotiated the draft. And then came that golden morning.

Although the FF decided to abstain, and voting had to be done twice, upon the second try there was an overwhelming and relieved “yes”. This was despite the ACDP voting against it and the IFP still no longer part of the decision to issue what Ramaphosa famously described as “the birth certificate of the nation”.

It was done.

13 of the key players

* Cyril Ramaphosa: The ANCâ??s secretary-general since 1991, he headed the ANCâ??s negotiations team. In 1994, he became an MP before being elected chairman of the Constitutional Assembly.

* Leon Wessels, deputy chairman: In politics since 1977, he was promoted in the NP even though he was identified as a liberal. He was minister of local government, national housing and manpower in the last apartheid administration before 1994.

* Baleka Mbete:Earned great respect within the ANC and was secretary-general of the Womenâ??s League before becoming an ANC MP in 1994.

* Collins Chabane: The late cabinet minister went into exile at the age of 17 when he joined MK. A popular member of the resistance, he was chosen for his organisational skills.

* Pravin Gordhan: He was part of Codesa, primarily as a Natal and Transvaal Indian Congress representative, but earned such kudos that he was appointed to the panel of chairmen on the planning committee of the negotiation process.

* Willie Hofmeyr: An activist in the labour movement and member of the UDF, Hofmeyr was an MP for the ANC.

* Sheila Camerer: A former prosecutor, she became deputy minister of justice in the NP and the GNU.

* Roelf Meyer: Appointed minister of defence in 1991, the liberal NP politician was unable to win over apartheidâ??s generals, and instead became minister of constitutional affairs and of communication.

* Colin Eglin: Was the leader of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) and official opposition leader until 1987, when the right-wing Conservative Party became the official opposition. The PFP merged with other parties to become the DP in 1989.

* Dene Smuts: The late DP MP joined politics in 1989, and served as a constitutional negotiator for the party.

* Constand Viljoen: In 1993, Viljoen and other retired apartheid generals formed the Afrikaner Volksfront, but, considered too moderate, and after violence and a threatened coup in Bophuthatswana, founded the Freedom Front.

* Richard Sizani: A former teacher in Australia and New Zealand, Sizani was chief whip of the PAC.

* Kenneth Meshoe: Founded the ACDP in December 1993.

The numbers

* 400 - the members of the National Assembly under the Interim Constitution.

* R30 million - was spent on a public submission process.

* 400 - the number of workshops held around the country.

* 20 million - the estimated number of photocopies made during the process.

* 130 - the number of pages in the first working draft.

* 2 million - the number of letters and petitions send to the Constitutional Assembly.

* 34 - the number of constitutional principles with which the new constitution was required to comply.

* 17 - the number of cents by which the rand fell against the dollar during the final days of the process.

* 35 - the number of sections in Chapter 2 of the constitution relating to human rights.

The Star