The New Constitution -- A Historical Assessment
The New Constitution -- A Historical Assessment
The acceptance by the Constitutional Assembly of a new Constitution for South Africa marks another significant step in the development of a South African society. The event was part of a process that has involved very many changes in the socio-political lives of people. In the process there have been noteworthy differences in the events that have led up to the writing of several constitutional documents. These documents have formed the framework of the exercising of political authority by central, provincial and local governing bodies at different times. So for example the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 went along with the birth of a Constitution defining the country’s political structure after the Anglo-Boer war and the “power-sharing” role accorded the one-time opponents of British rule. That constitution placed the Union within the British Empire. The 1931 Westminister Statute extended the political scope of the 1910 Constitution to situate South Africa in the Commonwealth. That position was changed when, in 1961, under the leadership of HF Verwoerd, South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth to become an independent republic. That event, too, led to further constitutional changes. Whatever the phase of the country’s history and whatever the immediate reasons for the constitutional changes might have been, one aspect of South Africa’s political, economic and social human relationships remained a common factor.
In the words of the late Edward Roux, the politics of South Africa “is/was the politics of cheap(black) labour”. Thus, while the developments of the post-war period, especially the past two decades, have led to what is so freely called “the first elected democratic government”, in the form of a government of national unity, the driving force in bringing about change has been the altering political, economic and social relationships between South Africa’s rulers and the oppressed and exploited majority -- the disfranchised, landless majority that has fought back against its role, status and economic and political unfreedom.
But a democracy does not come about by the simple act of casting a vote -- even a common vote. A democracy cannot co-exist with the tragically divided society of today.
In history the falsification of fact, of the casual relationships and the means by which a ruling class exercises and buttresses its powers, is only too well known. South African written history is no exception. A fresh attempt is being made to rewrite South Africa’s history for schools, to present the picture of change to present and future generations of pupils. Consequently the need to tell the naked truth of what had been happening that led to the adoption of a New Constitution in 1996 is both a necessity and a challenge.
In the immediate past the 1961 changes were succeeded by the 1977 tricameral parliament constitutional reconstruction together with the creation of the satellite constitutions that set up the ten “homelands” and their separate governing councils. In other parts of the ex-colonial world, especially after World War II, the Imperial powers opted for the system of neo-colonial change in most instances. But in South Africa the basic framework of governing structures upon the deepening segregationist or apartheid strategy was assaulted by increasingly better organised and more directed opposition from the broad liberatory movement.
The tricameral parliament and ten satellite “homelands” governing bodies proved totally inadequate to quell revolt or maintain domination over the disfranchised. Every successive layer of collaborators among the disfranchised that was used in an attempt to buttress the system that failed lamentably in the face of growing opposition. It is a historical fact that in earlier neo-colonial changes brought about by, for example, Britain and France, the procedure was similar in most cases. Opposition to imperialism was led by the intelligentsia and subject trading and ghetto-confined traders of all kinds. In the foreground of any impending overthrow of colonial domination, the imperial powers managed to persuade such petit-bourgeois underclasses to agree to accept a special kind of citizenship, independence and self-rule which would enable that class to fulfill its ambitions and rule the ex-colonial country as the resident governing power.
In South Africa several layers of such political elements were drawn into the sequence of dummy councils that were put in place by diktats from Pretoria or, later, by voting procedures based upon dummy votes for segregated councils defined in terms of “race”. It was in the period between 1975 and 1985, when these stratagems were in a final state of failure and uselessness, that the international ruling class virtually twisted the arms of the SA ruling junta led by PW Botha and FW de Klerk to abandon the military option to suppress the liberation struggle - and to seek a special kind of neo-colonial way out for the country.
What was of cardinal importance, as ever, was the even greater significance of South Africa’s economic role as an extension of the imperialist-capitalist state - created upon a population that still suffered a defined colonialist-fascist form of domination. Important, too, was the fact that by now only one line of new collaborators was still available to implement the special neo-colonial transformation.
It was this process of implementation that in the 1985-1990 period became labeled “negotiations”. But as with all other such processes, and more especially because of South Africa’s greater problems, a special kind of double-speak was developed by both the ruling class and the new petit-bourgeois elements being targeted to agree to a neo-colonial “way out”. It was the only way out for the embattled ruling class. It was a way-in for the willing ambitious elements who could be won over to share both the exploitation of the country’s resources and the control of it's (black) labour.
Even as the new Constitution (which set out the thirty-four guiding principles of the proto-Constitution) was being passed in a Constitutional Assembly -- as distinct from a Constituent Assembly demanded by the anti-negotiations' forces -- two other things were happening.
The new elite were joining the capitalist classes in joint ventures or muscling in on a big scale in the Stock Exchange. At the same time workers who had been hoodwinked into supporting the collaborating leadership found their one-time executives not only being appointed as labour ministers. These latter were also conspicuously engaged in getting the workers to agree to new labour laws and to co-operate with their employers in councils whose primary function is to take the heart out of the struggle between capital and labour.
Thus the Constitution will be regarded as a “democratic constitution” only by those without a conscious understanding of the process by which it was born out of the specific events that preceded its birth.
There is a world of difference between a true democratic institution and one that lies atop other institutions -- economic, legal, social, educational -- that lead to class discrimination, wealth and poverty, ghettos and “up-market” residential areas, education and illiteracy, protected jobs and chronic unemployment. These latter typify the face of bourgeois democracy the world over. The Group of 7 (G7) nations conform to this pattern -- and so does South Africa in many ways. But its “liberty” is a cruel mirage. Freedom is made up of many, many components. In the modern era the main component of the freedom for which world revolution strives is freedom from economic exploitation and all that results from it.
Such economic freedom has not entered even in an initial way into the lives of three-quarters of this countries' population. The collapse of the “government of national unity” on the very day the Constitution was “passed” is one symptom of the false basis underlying the “new democracy”. The Reconstruction and Development Programme was one signal that the promise of economic relief or liberation was equally a mirage, a sick bluff, an unreal posturing by persons who were put in office, but were certainly not in power.
Of the double-speak much can be said. There is the public habit of attributing to apartheid all our current problems. That is the lesser half of the truth. The greater half is that world imperialism is THE cause. But it is this same imperialism that has put together the new system of government in this country. The members of this government and their propaganda agents in press, pulpit, on radio, television and through other media will not say so. No one “kills” the master chef that so sumptuously fills the table on the gravy train.
Trained Constitutional lawyers set up the framework for the Constitution. Breakfast, lunch and supper were served up with talk of a comprehensive Bill of Rights embedded in that framework. But the global experience shows that such a device in the hands of the middle classes and their trailing petit-bourgeois allies drawn out of gaols and liberation forces -- as were Nehru, Nkrumah and Kenyatta, for example -- means little. Modern “democracies” like the USA, France and India have their Bill of Rights. Yet each has a frighteningly dismal human rights record though their legal histories are two hundred years apart.
Thus far none of the legal institutions involving “the people’s choice” has been set up by the exercising of a democratic vote for candidates of the people’s choice. The vote is but an initial index to the right to create a democratic society.
In the history of struggle in this country certain of the political leadership and political organisations have distilled the history of mankind’s struggle for liberty. That freedom is a composite state of society and mankind’s condition is well known. Freedom is indivisible. Its major components have been caught up in the programme, policy and practices of the Teachers’ League of South Africa ever since 1943-1944. The struggle against all the make-believe upon which South Africa’s “first democratic State” is founded must be separated from the newspeak we are being subjected to. There is a common vote. There is access to public places not open before -- but qualified by many hindrances like poverty, illiteracy, lack of mobility. There is legal protection against certain types of discrimination of the past. But full democartic rights and the capacity to exercise those rights in all spheres of life hinge upon the INDIVISIBILITY of all human freedoms.
The most elementary duty that faces all teachers is that of extracting the NAKED TRUTH from the whole sequence of events in our recent history -- for that is the only history that we can rightfully teach in our schools as part of the history of society. The “Constitution” must not lead us into the folly of playing blind man’s bluff.
[THE EDUCATIONAL JOURNAL VOL. 66 #4, OFFICIAL ORGAN OF THE TEACHERS’ LEAGUE OF SOUTH AFRICA, JUNE 1996]
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