2 APRIL 2004



The South African Constitution is, in a very real sense, the foundation of the new South Africa:


As Albie Sachs, one of our Constitutional Court judges has put it, it is the autobiography of the nation.


The Constitution is particularly important for a country like South Africa with a complex population and a history of division and conflict.  It was freely negotiated and accepted by parties representing substantial majorities from all our communities and provides a blueprint for peace, justice and harmony that is acceptable to the overwhelming majority of South Africans.


The Constitution is also especially important for cultural, political and religious minorities.  The majority can usually secure its interests through its control of the levers of government.  Minorities on the other hand are often dependent on the Constitution and the law for the protection of their most important interests


How did South Africans from very widely differing cultures, traditions and ideologies manage to reach agreement on this remarkable document?


Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine parties that were further apart at the beginning of our constitutional negotiations than the National Party, the IFP and the ANC – which between them represented almost 94% of the electorate.





What  enabled these parties and the other twenty-three that joined them in the  multi-party negotiations to bridge the enormous chasms that divided them?   The key compromises that led to our agreement are now a matter of record:


The result of this process was the  adoption in December 1993 of our new Transitional Constitution.  It made provision for a fully democratic system of government based on the rule of law, with  guarantees for the full range of human and civil rights.


Looking back on our experience we can identify the following key factors that contributed to the success of our negotiations:

initiative earlier – say, in the middle ‘seventies – it

is doubtful that the National Party government would have been able to take its followers with it.   If we had launched our initiative too late, we might have entered the negotiation process when the balance of power had begun to shift against us – as Ian Smith did in Zimbabwe.


History sometimes opens a window of opportunity, when all the forces involved are ripe for negotiation.  It is the task of statesmen to recognise such windows and lead their followers through, before history once again slams the window shut.


These are among the factors and processes that enabled South Africa to reach agreement on our peaceful transition to multi-racial democracy.   The fruits of our successful compromise have been well worth the effort, sacrifices and frustrations involved in negotiations.  The price of continued conflict would have been bitter and unacceptable.


The best contribution that we in South Africa can make will be to work day and night to ensure that our Constitution becomes a living document for all South Africans – that all our people are aware of their rights and are in a position to claim them in practice.