Unit 6. The End of Apartheid and the Birth of Democracy

The Constitution now took center stage as the new Parliament sat as the Constitutional Assembly. The Constitutional Court of South Africa (similar to the Supreme Court in the United States) was established in 1994 and assumed a central role in the new South African democracy. The Court had to certify a new Constitution and ensure it complied with the Constitutional Principles agreed to by negotiators. At first, the Court ruled that the text did not fully comply with the Principles. The Parliament reconvened to adopt an amended document, which was subsequently certified to become the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa in 1996.

This new constitution is one of the most forward-looking in the world. Written in remarkably plain language, it contains firm guarantees of equality. Underlying its principles (as in the Constitution of the United States) are democracy, equality, responsibility, and freedom, but also included are ideas of reconciliation and diversity. Significantly, the South African Constitution also included a Bill of Rights that affirmed individual liberties, but went further to include rights to basic and higher education, decent housing, to work and strike, rights of access to information, equal rights for women and gay and lesbians, and protection of children and the environment. The important "principle of the ratchet" was incorporated into the Constitution: even if the government cannot give everyone things like housing, schools, and water all at once, it must be able to show the courts a convincing program whereby these things are increasingly made available, eventually to everyone.

The transition to democracy was a crucial turning point in South African and world history, ending three centuries of colonialism and finally burying the repressive and deeply racist apartheid government. White supremacy was overturned by majority rule, but without the bloodbath many had predicted. There are several factors that account for these momentous events.

The turn to constitutionalism was crucial in facilitating political change in the early 1990s. At the heart of the success of negotiations were the compromises made on all sides to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy. Although the law and the courts had enforced apartheid, they had also offered some limited protection and constitutionalism. They now offered a way out of political deadlock, helping reconcile seemingly irreconcilable political opponents by giving each a stake in the new South Africa. The main political parties made fundamental compromises that provided stability during the transitional period: blacks gained political power while whites retained economic power. The specter of escalating violence and the danger of economic chaos probably drove negotiators to reach consensus.

Internal factors were crucially important in bringing about apartheid's fall. Decades of multi-faceted popular resistance had undermined South Africa's political and economic viability. The rapid growth and increasing power of black labor unions and the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the 1980s weakened the apartheid state and made white supremacy impossible to maintain. If the economy were to survive, the working class and the rising black middle class required full political rights.

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