By the FW de Klerk Foundation

On 10 December 1996 – 25 years ago – President Mandela signed the 1996 Constitution into law in the historically symbolic town of Sharpeville.

He chose 10 December because it is International Human Rights Day – which commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948. It was also on 10 December 1993 that Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution to South Africa’s relatively peaceful transition from white minority rule to inclusive constitutional democracy.

Following President FW de Klerk’s pivotal speech on 2 February 1990 the doors were opened to multiparty negotiations on a new constitution. December, 2021, marks the 30th anniversary of the commencement of formal negotiations at CODESA, which ultimately led to the adoption, five years later, of the 1996 Constitution.

These events cumulatively ushered in South Africa’s new non-racial constitutional dispensation which is underpinned by the core values of human dignity, the achievement of equality, the advancement of human rights and freedoms, non-racialism, non-sexism, the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law and a system of genuine multiparty democracy that is open, responsive and accountable

As a result, South Africa is undoubtedly a far better place than it was before the transition to democracy. It is a genuine democracy with regular and credible elections; a comprehensive Bill of Rights; independent courts – that regularly strike down unconstitutional laws and executive action – and free and outspoken media and civil society organisations. These are all considerable achievements of which all South Africans should be proud.

At the same time South Africa has failed to achieve many of the fundamental goals and promises that are articulated in the Constitution. We have not healed the divisions of the past; we have not improved the quality of life of all South Africans sufficiently; neither has our education system freed the potential of each person. We have not advanced equality – and are now a more unequal country than we were in 1994 – with inequality within population groups that is almost as extreme as inequality within society as a whole.

Although we are a functioning multiparty democracy, unacceptable levels of corruption and declining state capacity – coupled with an increasing failure to adhere to the abovementioned values – are seriously diluting the national vision that we adopted 25 years ago.

Many commentators are now critical of the constitutional settlement of 1996. They insist that the Constitution has failed and that we should convene a “new CODESA”. Those on the left reject many of the rights, freedoms and values on which the New Constitution was based. Critics on the right seek recognition for increasingly autonomous communities throughout the country.

Such calls should be resisted. We shall never be able to negotiate a better or more inclusive Constitution than the one that President Mandela signed into law 25 years ago. The manifold faults in our present society are not the result of any shortcomings in the Constitution. They are the result of our failure over the past 25 years to make the vision in our Constitution a living reality for all our people.

As we enter the second quarter century of our new society we should all rededicate ourselves to the achievement of the vision and values in the Constitution that we celebrate today.

10 December 2021