“Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.” This is the opening line of South Africa’s national anthem. It means, “Lord bless Africa.” The national anthem is sung in four different languages, which is part of the reason why South Africa is nicknamed the “rainbow nation.” However, does the country protect all its citizens?

Did you know that our constitution is the most respected in the world? If not, this article is going to be a great starter.

Constitutional history and development

South Africa’s constitutional history and development is divided into three key phases: the period between 1909 and 1910, the period 1910 and 1990 and finally the period 1990 to present. The South Africa Act of 1909 only granted independence to South Africa to the extent that British Crown would continue to be a ceremonial Head of State represented on the ground by a Governor General.

In 1931, the Statute of Westminster removed many constitutional limitations on all British dominions reducing the role and presence of the British Crown. Following this Statute, the South African Parliament passed the Status of Union Act of 1934 to the effect that no act of the British parliament could apply to South Africa unless endorsed by the Union parliament.

In 1960, following the drafting of a new constitution, South Africa’s white voters voted in a constitutional referendum to abolish the Union of South Africa created by the South Africa Act of 1909. Then the Republic of South Africa was established. There no longer was a queen to report to but instead a president, a prime minister, and an executive council (cabinet), based in Pretoria, a bicameral legislature in Cape Town and an independent judiciary sitting in Bloemfontein.

In 1983, a series of legislative reforms resulted in the enactment of a new constitution and a reconfiguration of state institutions and power. The constitution also provided for a President’s Council for advice on serious matters.

In 1990, the National Party was forced to dismantle the oppressive system. They lifted the ban on political organizations like the African National Congress (ANC) and released its leader, Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in prison. During this period, there was the constitution interim of 1993. It provided for a Government of National Unity, a five-year transition. It also provided for a Constituent Assembly consisting of a combined Senate and National Assembly to draft a new constitution.

A new constitution was finally created. This is celebrated as a masterpiece of post conflict in the post-cold war era. It is designed in the context of South Africa’s transition to democratic rule which started with the release of Mandela in February 1990. It ended decades of oppressive white minority rule and it has since been amended sixteen times but remains the basic law of the Republic of South Africa.

Why the constitution is so important?

The constitution contains the most important rules of our political system. It protects the rights of the people inside the country, and it explains their obligations. It defines the institutions of SA, its powers and how it can be used. The constitution is about the rights of the people, how Parliament and the other legislatures work, how the national and provincial executives are chosen, and how the courts work. It also establishes six institutions to support our democracy.

South Africa is a constitutional democracy. This means the constitution is the highest law of the land. Parliament cannot pass a law, which goes against the constitution. No person, not even the President, can go against it. The courts and the government must also make sure what they do is constitutional.

The constitution itself is protected because it is much more difficult to change than any other law. The most important parts of the constitution can only be changed if 75% of the members of the National Assembly and six of the nine provinces in the National Council of Provinces agree.

The SA constitution had three spheres

Local Municipality – this focuses on local issues which the ward councilor deals with, it is subject to provincial and national laws.

Provincial Legislature – this is all about provincial things like housing, but it is subject to national laws. For some things, provinces may make laws even if Parliament disagrees. Premier and MECs (members of the executive council of each province) make provincial policies, but provinces may make their own policy even if national government disagrees.

National Parliament – this is for the whole country, although provinces have more power over certain things. The President, Cabinet Ministers, Deputy Ministers are involved in the makings of the national policy. They draft and implement national laws and national parliament is responsible for national matters like intelligence, defense and foreign affairs.

What has the constitution done for you?

Who is the public? That’s you and me. The citizens of South Africa.

Some of the main values of the constitution are: human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedom, non-racialism and non-sexism.

In 2019, the World Bank recognised South Africa as the most unequal country in the world; the World Bank also reported that the richest 20% of people in South Africa control almost 70% of the resources. This means those in charge have failed to uphold one of the constitution’s main values, which is human dignity for the majority. Today, the majority is still poor and black.

Here are some rights included in the Bill of Rights in the constitution:

  • No unfair discrimination is allowed
  • Everyone has the right to freedom
  • Everyone has freedom of religion, belief, opinion and expression
  • Everyone has political rights.

You may think the constitution has nothing to do with you or doesn’t affect you in any way but the reason so many people fought for its fruition was for anyone in South Africa to have the basic right to education. This is why so many people are fighting for equality and inclusion to this day, so that future generations even after this generation, don’t have to suffer the same struggles as before.

For more information on where you can access the Constitution or even the Bill of rights, click on this link.

Did you know that some prisoners are innocent? Read here to find out more.

 Tell us: What have you learnt about the constitution from this article?