Conversation on the Constitution

Fifteen years ago, President Nelson Mandela signed the final draft of South Africa’s Constitution, or what one of its drafters, Cyril Ramaphosa calls “our birth certificate”.

Last night, the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory hosted a discussion in the Constitutional Court to mark the document’s 15 years of life.

The event also marked the release of the new book One Law, One Nation, which maps South Africa’s long struggle for constitutional rights.

Written by Lauren Segal and Sharon Cort the book uses rare documents and archive material to track the journey to the delivery on 10 December 1996 of what has become known as a “Rolls-Royce” constitution.

The panellists included prominent members of South Africa’s juduciary.

Leading South African radio and television news personality Nikiwe Bikitsha facilitated the discussion between former Deputy Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly Leon Wessels, former Constitutional Court Judge Hon. Yvonne Mokgoro, Senior Counsel Wim Trengove and former law clerk at the Constitutional Court Lwando Xaso.

Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the key figures behind the drafting of the Constitution, welcomed the panel.

Bikitsha noted that the timing of the conversation was pertinent as South African society was engaged in debate around the Constitution and the government’s proposal to have its powers reviewed.

Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the key figures behind the drafting of the Constitution, welcomed the panel.

Ramaphosa said South Africans should not feel uneasy or threatened. He said South Africa’s Constitution “belongs to all of us, not just the ruling party, or one section of South Africa. We all wrote this collectively with our blood, some with their lives, with our tears and with our sweat. We claim it as ours, it enshrines the rights that make us live as South Africans, and we will protect it because it belongs to us.”

Wessels noted some of the highlights of helping to draft the Constitution under Ramaphosa. He recalled his first experience of being “drafted” into the Consitutional Assembly, a surprise appointment issued by the Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, and how he felt when he went to discuss this appointment with Ramaphosa after the National Assembly convened.

“What excited me tremendously, and also filled me with great trepidation,” Wessels said, was that Ramaphosa was “sitting in the very same chair” once occupied by former apartheid Prime Minister John Vorster and in “the very same office” once used by his successor, President PW Botha. “It was then that I realised this process is not sugar-coated, this is for real.”

Ahmed Kathrada and Neeshan Balton, Executive Director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation at last night’s discussion about the Constitution

Mokgoro broached the issue of a separation of powers, referring to the tensions evident between the judiciary, judges and politicians. She explained that the idea of a separation of powers is accompanied by principles of checks and balances, and that it may be possible for an adventurous judiciary to overstep the mark in its judgements.

Bikitsha asked Trengove how he felt about the possibility that government would change the powers of South Africa’s nine provinces.

He explained that when the Constitution was drafted, the country was very divided, making the devolution of power very important. “I think to a very large extent we moved away from the high priority of provincial powers. We can’t do away with them, but we can afford to relook at the redistribution of powers.”

“When the Constitution was drafted, I was about eight or nine years old, playing in the dusty streets. To be sitting here with a panel of people who have secured my future is quite moving, and I want to thank you,” said Xaso to applause from the audience.

She related her experiences of serving under Judge Edwin Cameron at the Constitutional Court. “Justice Cameron wanted us to engage with whatever was going on. I remember he asked me, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ I told him all these grand stories and wonderful ideas, and he said to me, ‘What are you going to contribute? You must contribute…’ And those words have stuck in my head to this day.”

The panel stressed that the Constitution is a living document and that the conversation should continue on all platforms in South African society. It reasserted that no person should fear that its core values would ever be compromised.

After raising other issues like land reform and the Constitution, and making the Constitution accessible to the youth or poorer sections of society, the floor was open to questions. At the end of the discussion Segal explained the process behind the creation of the book One Law, One Nation, and said she hoped it would inspire children in South Africa to familiarise themselves with the Constitution.

In his vote of thanks, Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory spokesperson, Sello Hatang, said the organisation supported the “We The People campaign”, which aims to raise awareness of the Constitution and to ensure that the rights enshrined in it became accessible to all in South Africa.

Former Constitutional Court Judge Hon. Yvonne Mokgoro