Hopes and History Mingle As Mandela Signs CharterBy Lynne Duke
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 11 1996; Page A19
On a day replete with the kind of liberation pageantry that has marked the milestones of the new South Africa, the air was thick with talk of unity and equality today as President Nelson Mandela signed the nation's first post-apartheid constitution into law.
Mandela's pen brought to life long-dreamed-of guarantees of racial equality and cultural protection as well as freedom of expression, association and religion in one of the world's most liberal constitutions. The document, celebrated today with songs of the struggle against apartheid and shouts of "Amandla! Awethu!" ("Power! To the people!"), outlines the powers of executive, legislative, judicial and traditional tribal branches of government as well as public watchdog agencies to solidify the fledgling democracy after years of white-minority rule.
"A government of one nation," Morris Goba, a 16-year-old high school student, offered as grass-roots analysis from his perch in the bleachers of a soccer stadium packed with 4,000 witnesses to the historic event.
"Let me put it this way," another celebrant said. "The black people were suffering from the whites. Now we are equal."
"We are neutral, not equal," corrected Johannes Mahlatsi, 31, an unemployed father of two. "People are suffering: no houses, no water, no jobs. . . . South Africa is a country with a lot of money, but the thing is, the white people are still on top."
Such are the socioeconomic realities and tensions that greeted the new constitution in this nation whose peaceful transition from white-minority rule to to nonracial democracy has been called a miracle but whose promise of equality will be a work in progress for years to come.
The constitution's provisions for "human dignity, equality and freedom" mark a historic break from the days when apartheid, the legal system of white domination, made equality a treasonous concept. But the new constitution's guarantees are in stark contrast to the staggering economic inequalities that still beset the new nation -- especially its black majority, for whom unemployment remains endemic and proper housing scarce.
For that reason, some officials describe the constitution as a beginning and note that the promise of democracy still must be translated into real change. Mahlatsi, for his part, says he believes such change will occur and that the constitution -- which he has yet to see -- is but a step on a very long road. "I'm here to listen to Mr. Mandela on the new constitution," he said. "It is an important day."
The constitution's signing is another milestone in the nearly three-year democratization process that formally began with South Africa's first all-races election in April 1994, when Mandela became the country's first black president. Before that vote, blacks had been subject to a legal system that treated them as a foreign peril, not as citizens of their own land. But the constitution completes the nation's transition from authoritarianism to rule of law, creating a system in which court tests, interpretations and precedents can deepen the legal canon.
The constitution's Bill of Rights took effect with the stroke of Mandela's pen today; other provisions will be phased in over the next few months.
That the constitution was signed here in Sharpeville, 35 miles south of Johannesburg, charged the event with bittersweet significance. It was in the town of Vereeniging, which surrounds Sharpeville, that the British and their Dutch-descended Afrikaner adversaries ended the Anglo-Boer war in 1902 with a peace deal that included a provision denying blacks the vote.
And it was in Sharpeville itself in 1960 that police massacred 69 black people who were protesting against the pass laws that required them to carry documents justifying their presence in places reserved for whites.
With survivors of the Sharpeville massacre flanking him, Mandela declared: "Out of the many Sharpevilles which haunt our history was born the unshakeable determination that respect for human life, dignity and well-being must be enshrined as rights beyond the power of any force to diminish."
"Today, together as South Africans from all walks of life and from virtually every school of political thought, we reclaim the unity that the Vereeniging of 90 years ago sought to deny."
Erecting the nation's new legal and political structure has been a tedious process focused as much on deconstructing the labyrinthine edifice of apartheid as on building its replacement.
The constitution grew out of years of negotiation that began in 1990 when Mandela was released from 27 years' political imprisonment and bans on anti-apartheid groups, including his African National Congress, were lifted.
An interim constitution was adopted by the last apartheid-era Parliament in 1993, and lawmakers elected in 1994 began cobbling together a final version that would underpin the new democratic form of electoral government and be a unifying force in guaranteeing rights and protections for the country's many racial, language and economic groups.
Despite objections by conservative Afrikaners that the new constitution would not grant the legal protection necessary for their culture to survive, Parliament passed it in May. But the nation's Constitutional Court, which has the final word in interpreting the document, sent it back to its drafters. The court said the constitution needed to be strengthened so it could not be amended easily, and sought changes in sections dealing with local and regional governments and with public watchdog agencies. Last week, the court approved the final document.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company