Cyril Ramaphosa | Our Constitution must be more than words on a page
President Cyril Ramaphosa (GCIS)
As we mark the anniversary of the adoption of our democratic constitution, let us remember what a decisive break this was from the system underpinned by racism, exploitation, dispossession and oppression that had preceded, writes. Cyril Ramaphosa.
Dear South African comrade,
Today is the anniversary of an event in our history that most South Africans would rather not remember.
Sixty years ago, on May 31, 1961, apartheid South Africa became a republic, severing its ties with the British Empire. But while a “republic” is generally defined as a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, this was not the case in South Africa.
The constitution of the apartheid republic pledged allegiance to God, “who gathered our ancestors from many countries and gave them this as their”. It was a Constitution written by and for a racial minority, and it used faith to justify tyranny. He described the administration of government, providing that only whites were allowed to vote and serve as representatives of the public. It did not contain any bill of rights.
The majority of the country has been relegated to a footnote towards the end of its 121 provisions, in a section titled “Administration of Bantu Affairs, etc.”.
In a televised message from the Prime Minister’s residence, now known as Mahlamba Ndlopfu, then Prime Minister HF Verwoerd said:
We are looking for the progressive development of each of our groups in a certain direction. Here, the solution is openly sought by retaining the guiding hand of the white man.
“We are very happy to be a united people,” he told the world. But the reality was that we were not a united people. We were inhabitants of a country where their rights, prospects and life expectancy were determined by their race.
For two decades, the Constitutional Law of the Republic of South Africa of 1961 was the legal engine of the repression of nearly 90% of the South African population. It provided legal cover for discrimination, dispossession and exploitation. This unfortunate anniversary comes on the same month that we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the adoption by the Constitutional Assembly of our new democratic Constitution, which has become the birth certificate of a truly united nation. Now, we have a law for a nation.
Everyone is equal before the law
Together, we have chosen for ourselves a system of government which gives real meaning to the concept of a republic. We have said that in our democratic republic everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and the benefit of the law. South Africa is today a country where the administration of justice is entrusted to independent courts and a judicial system subject only to the Constitution.
We live in a country where everyone has the right to go to court to assert their rights. We live in a country where communities can legally claim lands from which they have been forcibly evicted, and where individuals or families are protected from arbitrary eviction from their homes. We live in a country where everyone is allowed to freely practice their culture and traditions. It is a country where anyone can freely demonstrate to support social, political and other causes anywhere.
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Our constitutional dispensation is based on responsible government, where the executive is accountable to the people and where Parliament is representative of the people. It is a country where the law applies equally to all citizens. We now have a government of the people, for the people and by the people. We share a common responsibility, both as a state and as citizens, to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the Bill of Rights.
As elected officials, we have a responsibility to keep our oaths and not to rob the state, engage in corruption, or mismanage resources intended for the benefit of our citizens.
When the apartheid regime triumphantly presented its racist constitution to the world 60 years ago, it lost confidence in its sustainability. In an unanswered letter to Verwoerd a month before the proclamation of the republic, Nelson Mandela affirmed the rejection by the forcibly imposed white republic liberation movement. He said that no constitution or form of government decided without the participation of the African people would have moral validity.
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Indeed, no system which enshrines the systematic denial of human rights can be maintained. Although it takes more than three decades before the demands of the liberation movement are met, we have finally won our freedom. By relegating the apartheid constitution to the dustbin of history, we are committed to a new constitution and a new set of values.
When I addressed the Constitutional Assembly 25 years ago, I said that our Constitution must become more than words on a page; it must become a reality in the life of our people. If we do not do this, this progressive and revolutionary document will lose its relevance and meaning. We have long decided what kind of society we want to be. It is a society rooted in human dignity, equality, freedom and non-discrimination.
For a quarter of a century, we have been working to build such a society. We have made clear progress, but we still have many challenges and much remains to be done. As we celebrate the anniversary of the adoption of our democratic Constitution, let us remember what a decisive break this was from the system underpinned by racism, exploitation, dispossession and oppression that had preceded. Let us not forget either that it is up to us to make the vision contained in our Constitution a reality.
For it is only by ensuring that all South Africans can freely and fully exercise their constitutional rights that we will truly become a united people.
With my best wishes.