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The Constitution - Miracle or Mirage?

Twenty years ago South Africans and the world were celebrating the miracle of a new democratic and inclusive dispensation in South Africa...



Talk given to the University of the Third Age, Hermanus branch, 13 February 2014



Twenty years ago South Africans and the world were celebrating the miracle of a new democratic and inclusive dispensation in South Africa, where many doom prophets had been expecting a bloody conflict along racial lines. The basis of this new dispensation was a negotiated constitution which was often described a one of the best in the word.

In 2014 many South Africans and others are disillusioned. In their view South Africa has a corrupt and inefficient government which seems to try and undermine that constitution in different ways. Will the constitution and its institutions (particularly the independent courts) be able to survive this perceived onslaught? Or is the country doomed to go the way of other African democracies?



“Enough is enough. The publicity for the death and funeral of Nelson Mandela has become absurd. Mandela was an African political leader with qualities that were apt at a crucial juncture in his nation's affairs. That was all and that was enough."

Visiting and writing about South Africa in the last years of white rule in the 1980s, I was acutely aware that the great struggle was not so much between the white South Africans and Mandela's ANC, whose leaders were in prison or exile, but within Afrikanerdom. This was no rebellion against a foreign power. It was a potential conflict between an impotent majority and a potent minority, in which the likelihood of the latter giving way to the former seemed minimal – and unnecessary in the short term.

The first hero of that struggle was the then prime minister, FW de Klerk. The realisation that his group should cede power to a black government was a moral conversion as much as realpolitik. The Afrikaners capitulated not because some mighty power (such as sanctions) had crushed them or because of the more significant fall of Rhodesia and the Portuguese empire. Their priests and intellectuals told them apartheid had lost the argument. They had lost the will. It had been, said De Klerk, "a terrible wrong".

Even so the task of switching to black majority rule was Herculean, and success by no means inevitable. A lesser man than De Klerk could well have battled on for another decade of mounting bloodshed. But his tribal revolution, well chronicled by the historian of Afrikanerdom Hermann Giliomee, succeeded. It was a rare case of an entrenched minority peacefully handing power to a majority.

Mandela was crucial to De Klerk's task. He was an African aristocrat, articulate of his people's aspirations, a reconciler and forgiver of past evils. Mandela seemed to embody the crossing of the racial divide, thus enabling De Klerk's near impossible task. White South Africans would swear he was the only black leader who made them feel safe – with nervous glances at Desmond Tutu and others.

South Africa in the early 90s was no postcolonial retreat. It was a bargain between one set of tribes and another. For all the cruelties of the armed struggle, it was astonishingly sparing of blood. This was no Pakistan, no Sri Lanka, no Congo. The rise of majority rule in South Africa was one of the noblest moments in African history. The resulting Nobel peace prize was rightly shared between Mandela and De Klerk, a sharing that has been ignored by almost all the past week's obituaries. There were two good men in Cape Town in 1990.

Once that instinct had unlocked the door of a settlement, Mandela acted swiftly to reassure white businessmen who could well have vanished overseas. He welded the ANC into an electoral force, and worked to keep dissident Zulus on board when Natal secession briefly threatened. But as David Beresford's admirable Guardian obituary relates, he was a worse than ordinary president. He did little to resist the drift to cronyism and corruption, was a poor executive, and never deployed his talents to tame Mugabe or ease the horrors afflicting the rest of Africa. He preferred to see out his office meeting celebrities and raising dubious money.

After seeing their former president doused in virtue and squeezed dry of glory by an assembly of world celebrities, South Africans should repatriate his reputation. Mandela gave them signal service for a brief few years in the 1990s, and if it suits them to revere him as a symbol of unity, goodness and peace, so be it. That is their business.

But the South African quality I recall Mandela possessing to the full was not saintliness, it was a hardened sense of irony. I doubt if he is wearing the BBC's tin halo right now. I would bet he is laughing his head off.”


  • Concept of a constitutional state based on the supremacy of the law (and NOT, as in England, on the supremacy of Parliament) and power of courts to review
  • American origin (1783)
  • Post-war German constitution of 1949: Rechtsstaat (Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)
  • Strong German influence on new SA constitution of 1993 (transition) and 1996 (final)



Sec 1.  Republic of South Africa

The Republic of South Africa is one, sovereign, democratic state founded on the following values:

(a) Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.

(b) Non-racialism and non-sexism.

(c) Supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law.

(d) Universal adult suffrage, a national common voters roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.

Sec 2. Supremacy of Constitution

This Constitution is the supreme law of the Republic; law or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid, and the obligations imposed by it must be fulfilled.



(ss 181-194)

181 Establishment and governing principles

(1) The following state institutions strengthen constitutional democracy in the Republic:

(a) The Public Protector.

(b) The South African Human Rights Commission.

(c) The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of

Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.

(d) The Commission for Gender Equality.

(e) The Auditor-General.

(f) The Electoral Commission.

(2) These institutions are independent, and subject only to the Constitution and the law, and they must be impartial and must exercise their powers and perform their functions without fear, favour or prejudice.

(3) Other organs of state, through legislative and other measures, must assist and protect these institutions to ensure the independence, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness of these institutions.

(4) No person or organ of state may interfere with the functioning of these institutions.

(5) These institutions are accountable to the National Assembly, and must report on their activities and the performance of their functions to the Assembly at least once a Year.



165 Judicial authority

(1) The judicial authority of the Republic is vested in the courts.

(2) The courts are independent and subject only to the Constitution and the law, which they must apply impartially and without fear, favour or prejudice.

(3) No person or organ of state may interfere with the functioning of the courts.

(4) Organs of state, through legislative and other measures, must assist and protect the courts to ensure the independence, impartiality, dignity, accessibility and effectiveness of the courts.

(5) An order or decision issued by a court binds all persons to whom and organs of state to which it applies.

Sec 172. Powers of courts in constitutional matters

(1) When deciding a constitutional matter within its power, a court --

(a) must declare that any law or conduct that is inconsistent with the  Constitution is invalid to the extent of its inconsistency; and

(b) may make any order that is just and equitable, including -

(i) an order limiting the retrospective effect of the declaration of invalidity; and

(ii) an order suspending the declaration of invalidity for any period and on any conditions, to allow the competent authority to correct the defect.

(2) (a) The Supreme Court of Appeal, a High Court or a court of similar status may make an order concerning the constitutional validity of an Act of Parliament, a provincial Act or any conduct of the President, but an order of constitutional invalidity has no force unless it is confirmed by the Constitutional Court......

(d) Any person or organ of state with a sufficient interest may appeal, or apply, directly to the Constitutional Court to confirm or vary an order of constitutional invalidity by a court in terms of this subsection.


  • CODESA was purely political with no inputs from civil society – resultant gap between e g Bill of Rights (Chapter 2, secs 7-39) and cultural and moral beliefs of many South Africans in social matters such as death penalty and homosexuality
  • Lack or weakness of alternative political power centres –   e g provinces, centralised police, central budgetary powers
  • Weak position of opposition in parliamentary system
  • Relative weakness of some chapter 9 bodies – lack of own resources
  • Use of demography to divide and weaken, minorities too
  • Powers of courts as main counterbalance create a focus on them, healthy and unhealthy
  • Judicial Service Commission: composition and functions
  • Legal Practice Bill as example of pressure on judicial independence



Sec 178 Judicial Service Commission

(1) There is a Judicial Service Commission consisting of-

(a) the Chief Justice, who presides at meetings of the Commission;

(b) the President of the Supreme Court of Appeal;

(c) one Judge President designated by the Judges President;

(d) the Cabinet member responsible for the administration of justice, or an alternate designated by that Cabinet member;

(e) two practising advocates nominated from within the advocates‘ profession to represent the profession as a whole, and appointed by  the President;

(f) two practising attorneys nominated from within the attorneys‘ profession to represent the profession as a whole, and appointed by the President;

(g) one teacher of law designated by teachers of law at South African universities;

(h) six persons designated by the National Assembly from among its members, at least three of whom must be members of opposition parties represented in the Assembly;

(i) four permanent delegates to the National Council of Provinces designated together by the Council with a supporting vote of at least six provinces;

(j) four persons designated by the President as head of the national executive, after consulting the leaders of all the parties in the National Assembly; and

(k) when considering matters relating to a specific High Court, the Judge President of that Court and the Premier of the province concerned, or an alternate designated by each of them.



Political commentator Justice Malala in The Times (Johannesburg), 26 November 2013:

“PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma is not a fool. He makes gaffes every week and has no idea what constitutionality means. But he is not a fool.

He might not read –- as has been alleged – but that does not mean he does not know what levers have to be cranked to ensure that he never gets inside a court.

Since he became the president of the ANC in 2007, he has overseen the most concerted and successful assault on the country’s independent institutions.

The judiciary is today facing a major crisis of confidence because of cases involving him at the Constitutional Court.

The minute he won the ANC presidency in Polokwane, the Scorpions – which had been investigating him – were disbanded. It was quick, cruel and ruthless.

Over the past few months it has been the public protector’s turn. In that time, we have witnessed concerted and coordinated attacks from parliament, the executive and various wings of the ANC on the office led by possibly the most admired “public servant” in the nation today – Thuli Madonsela.

And so one has to ask: Which ANC is this?”

“How can an organisation that refused to have a personality cult built around Nelson Mandela allow itself to become a mere tool in the hands of Zuma?

How can its leaders cast aside the party’s historical mission – to transform the lives of millions of poor black people and build a united, non-racial, prosperous and democratic country – to simply become gophers for Zuma?

Yet that is what the party’s 86-member national executive committee has become....

Across the land, provincial party leaders hobble state machinery merely to protect and keep this one compromised leader out of jail and in power.

It is an incredible sight.....

The ANC no longer has leaders. It has zombies who mindlessly follow this one leader and do his bidding.

It is quite extraordinary. What has happened to the culture of debate and contestation that once permeated this movement?.....

So, as we look at the extraordinary lengths that the current ANC “leadership” has gone to defend an embarrassment of a leader whose entire family seems to be infused by a shocking culture of entitlement ..., we have to ask: Where is the ANC?

The answer is heartbreaking: The ANC is compromised; it is lost.

It has lost its moral compass and its leadership of society....”


  • Whether one agrees with these strong words or not, they do show the disillusionment (even sense of betrayal) prevalent in much of SA society on the eve of election on 7 May.
  • This raises the question whether our expectations of our new dispensation were perhaps too high?
  • Should we not rather lower them and concentrate on “muddling through”?
  • Importance of free press! – efforts to limit.
  • Active civil society of cardinal importance – local level key
  • Coming election will in my view show that our constitutional foundations have their flaws, but remain solid
  • That there is a growing realisation that our future lies in constitutionalism, in spite of easy populist slogans


 BA LLB (cl) BPhil (cl) (Stell) LLD (cl) (Leiden) LLD (hc)(Leuven)
Rector and vice-chancellor emeritus, Professor extraordinary of Commercial Law, University of Stellenbosch.


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