The day in 1993 when there was no turning back for SA

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It was exactly 20 years ago on Monday that negotiators signed off on South Africa’s "interim" constitution, a document that would guide the transition from apartheid to democracy. The history books have it that we were a rainbow nation, our faces turned from a past of division towards a new dawn. The history books are not entirely accurate.

Back on November 18 1993, South Africa was at war. The monthly death toll from political killings was in the 400s — already more than 3,500 for the year.

In the weeks leading up to the adoption of the interim constitution, tension was running high. Bophuthatswana was preparing to take a last stand against change, which would lead to the dramatic showdown between the military and the Afrikaner right wing a month later.

Bophuthatswana, Inkatha’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Constand Viljoen’s right-wingers had formed the "Freedom Alliance", which refused to negotiate. Buthelezi was beginning to hold up his hands and hint that he would not be able to guarantee peace unless he was accommodated.

But the Freedom Alliance was in "bilateral" talks with the government, trying to find an accommodation that would allow it to return to the official negotiations.

The talks were fruitless, but they performed the critical role of keeping the Freedom Alliance inside the circle, paving the way for the intense diplomacy by Nigeria’s Emeka Anyaoku that would get Buthelezi onto the ballot paper at the last moment in April 1994.

The threat of an armed insurrection was real. Deep in the bush of northern KwaZulu-Natal, I came across Inkatha members undergoing rudimentary military training in brown overalls under the gaze of white militarists. It was spine-chilling.

In Gauteng, blood flowed around East Rand hostels. Assassinations and executions were a weekly occurrence, warranting only passing mention in the newspapers. Phrases such as "hacked to death with a panga", "shot with an AK-47", "burned to death in her house", slid cynically into news copy, where they became banal clichés. Commuters were being thrown off trains in a systematic campaign of violence. Fear was in the air.

In the week before the constitution was finalised, electioneering began in earnest as Nelson Mandela accused FW de Klerk of conniving in the violence, saying: "He does not care at all for the lives of black people." This was stump talk, but even so, it rudely tore the veneer of unity off the relationship between Mandela and De Klerk.

De Klerk might have been the co-author of the transition, but he was also the African National Congress’s (ANC) most serious electoral threat. The National Party’s (NP) lead negotiator, Roelf Meyer, who, along with Cyril Ramaphosa, had steered the talks to their conclusion, was driven to depart from his studied moderation. Mandela had "gone too far", he said.

Even as he hammered De Klerk, Mandela reached out to other parties, saying: "The Democratic Party (DP) has put up a very powerful fight for democratic values." And, in Greytown, he assured white farmers that their land would not be seized.

It was touch and go. Exactly where the military and the police would fall in the event of a collapse of the talks was unclear.

Inside the constitutional negotiations, 21 parties, including the ANC, NP and the DP, had spent several years panel-beating the interim constitution into shape. Codesa 1 and Codesa 2 had passed. Now these parties formed the Multiparty Negotiating Forum. A makeshift and deliberately vague decision-making process based on "sufficient consensus" was used to settle differences. Every point, clause and comment was scrutinised, refined, rejected and rewritten as the interim constitution staggered towards its deadline.

There were some telling interventions in those final days. Among the issues to be settled was how sacrosanct the constitution would be after elections. The ANC argued that a simple majority of MPs should be sufficient to pass the final constitution, while other parties wanted a higher threshold. In the end, a "two-thirds" majority was agreed on. The "two-thirds" persisted as the mark required for amendments to the final constitution, a decision that would save the constitution from the heady postapartheid politics to follow.

The parties had recently resolved the issue of how Constitutional Court judges ought to be appointed. The ANC stuck to its guns and won the argument that the final appointment would be made by the president after being presented with a short list by the Judicial Service Commission.

The ANC and the government agreed on this, with only a feisty young DP spokesman on justice, Tony Leon, in opposition.

Among those on the DP’s negotiating team was Helen Zille. There was irony aplenty. The DP negotiators proposed that no party achieving less than 5% of the vote should be represented in Parliament. Luckily for her party, which would get only 1.7% of the vote in 1994, the proposal was rejected.

Negotiators agreed that South Africa would be ruled by a government of national unity after the election, but exactly how the Cabinet would function was a bone of contention. The NP wanted decisions by consensus, while the ANC wanted the president to be in charge. In the end, the president would have the final say after consulting other parties.

In the final days before adoption, a delegation of press representatives objected to the inclusion of "privacy" and "national security" as legitimate limitations on press freedom in the constitution. They won the day and it is clear that the presence of the un-qualified freedom of expression clause in the bill of rights has saved the media from the worst instincts of some in the ruling party.

That week, 76 people died and 58 were injured in political violence, the Human Rights Commission reported.

It is remarkable that such an imperfect product, the result of compromise and a constantly moving line of consensus, was sufficient to usher in a democratic order that would enjoy the support of all but the most vociferous of ideologues.

Several months of bitter conflict and bloodletting were to follow, but November 18 1993 marked a turning point. The country had a new, albeit "interim" constitution, elections were set in stone and the Transitional Executive Council would take over the government.

On the steps of Parliament that day, Meyer and Ramaphosa stood side by side, understanding the significance of the moment. They both tried to downplay the achievement, Meyer saying "this is not going to be too easy" and Ramaphosa saying "the hard work starts now". Finally, Ramaphosa grinned. "I’m elated," he said. Perhaps he already had one eye on a new direction for himself in business. "Without economic empowerment, the constitution signed yesterday is meaningless," he would say.

Mandela and De Klerk, speaking separately after weeks of bitter attacks on one another, said what you would expect them to say. The hard work was just beginning; there was a long road ahead.

But, Mandela added: "Millions who were not allowed to vote will do so. I, too, for the first time in my short life, will vote." With that one sentence, the full meaning of the day became clear. There was no turning back.

The hall where the deal was struck on that day 20 years ago has since undergone its own transformation. It is now part of the Emperors Palace casino complex, a fitting tribute to a gigantic roll of the dice 20 years ago.


Hartley is editor at large. He graduated from Rhodes University.

Picture Source: THINKSTOCK

Article Source: Business Day