Thank you for the opportunity to say a few words about our Constitution and threats to it. An important point I think gets lost when we discuss the 1996 Constitution is that it is not South Africa’s first democratic Constitution. South Africa’s first democratic Constitution was the 1853 Cape Constitution that was promulgated by the British Parliament after many consultations with South Africans. The Cape Constitution did not discriminate on the grounds of race that the 1909 South Africa Act did. The only qualification in the Cape Constitution was the ability to write your name and to own 25 pounds worth of fixed property. This was an even more democratic Constitution than Britain’s Constitution at the time.
The Cape Constitution was sacrificed by the British in the settlement between British imperialism and Afrikaner nationalism of the Boer generals first at the Peace of Vereeniging in 1902 and later in the South Africa Act in 1909.
The sacrificing of South Africa’s first democratic Constitution in the face of powerful mining and agricultural interests holds many lessons on what can happen to the 1996 Constitution. One of the lessons is that in South Africa when democracy stands in the way of these powerful economic interests it is seriously at risk.
There is a more recent example of how democratic Constitutions get trampled upon when powerful economic interests feel threatened. In 1953 Britain and the United States conspired together and pulled off a coup d’etat against the democratically elected government of Iran which was led by Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh. They replaced it with an absolute monarchy of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi at the beck and call of the British and the Americans.
The elected parliament of Iran had decided to nationalise the oil industry in that country which the UK and the US concluded was against their interests. To them democracy in Iran was therefore dispensable.
As we are talking, the new Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the process of pulling the teeth out of the Israeli Supreme Court which plays a similar role to our Constitution Court.
Today we have heard wonderful presentations about how Chapter 9 Intuitions; Non-Governmental Organisations; the mass media and the judiciary defend the democratic Constitution of South Africa. In the light of what happened to the Cape Constitution and indeed to the democratic Constitution of Iran I cannot help asking myself are these role players who are defending our Constitution today strong enough to withstand assaults on the Constitution by powerful players such as African nationalists of the African National Congress and the Economic Freedom Fighters, big business, big labour, foreign investors, and foreign governments?
The endless tinkering that has been going on for the last two or three years with the Electoral Act largely to no avail by the NGOs and the Constitutional Court seems to me to indicate these two protagonists cannot really stand up successfully against powerful political parties in parliament.
The fundamental threat to South Africa’s democracy and its democratic Constitution are not the role players mentioned above, though the damage they can do to the Constitution should not be underestimated. The real threat to South Africa’s democracy is the economic system that South Africa inherited from the British colonial period. The South African economy despite its outward glittering appearance is a small, exclusionary, enclave economy that is unable to absorb much of its economically active population.
South Africa today has rightly been described by the late Stellenbosch economist, Professor Sampie Terreblanche, as an enclave economy that primarily services the consumption needs of its relatively small black and white middle class and upper class while a large part of the population is locked into unemployment, underemployment, poverty, and underdevelopment in rural and urban areas due to low investment levels in the economy as a percentage of GDP.
The South African economy was founded by the British during the last quarter of the 19th century on the exploitation of the country’s vast mineral resources through the use of cheap migrant black labour that was overseen by a small layer of white managers and supervisors. The purpose of this economy was to export raw materials to Britain and to the rest of the world. This characteristic of South Africa’s economy has barely changed since the British left in 1910. There has been limited industrialisation through Import Substitution Industrial Policies behind high tariff walls. Notwithstanding this limited industrialisation South Africa remains a primarily commodity exporter.
Its level of industrialisation which in any case has been declining since the last 30 years or so has left South Africa with a vast pool of unemployed and underclass as the diagram below shows.
Nationalism and South Africa’s economic development
South Africa is the most unequal country in the world as the diagram above shows, it also has some of the highest unemployment rates in the world. This is the legacy of the mining driven economy that was established by the British. Since the British left 112 years African and Afrikaner elite rule has continued to operate the British economic system. This system hobbled the broader and deeper development of South Africa by constraining the development of the country’s human capital. Job reservation and many misguided education policies condemned South Africa to relatively lower skill levels of development such as extractive industries, assembly, construction, public sector administration, and trade.
As a result of its human capital development inhibiting policies, the South African economy lacks the complexity of the newer economies of the Asian Tigers.
South Africa has therefore come to increasingly depend on the Asian Tigers for capital goods, telecommunication equipment, computers, transport equipment, consumer electronics, white goods, and many other manufactured products.
The vast unemployed and underemployed population constitute the powder keg that, if not addressed, will ultimately destroy South Africa’s democracy. The riots of July 2021 were nearly 400 people were killed and more than R50-billion worth of commercial property was destroyed, was a dress rehearsal of what can happen if the South Africa