Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act 110 of 1983

TitleConstitution of the Republic of South Africa Act 110 of 1983
Resource TypeOfficial or Original Documents

Background

Before P W Botha came to power in 1978, the government of John Vorster had begun a process for constitutional reforms. A commission headed by Erica Theron was appointed to improve the affairs of coloured people in South Africa. The Theron commission (1977) argued that the Westminster system was an obstacle to good governance in a multicultural and plural society like South Africa as it caused political conflict and cultural dominance by one group. The report called for the replacement of the system. However, the commission did not have a problem with the concept of racial segregation or laws like the Group Areas Act that forced different race groups to live in separate designated zones. As a result, the effect of the recommendations was limited because they did not question apartheid.

When Botha came to power he created a parliamentary select committee to look at the reforms proposed by the Theron commission, which were now gazetted as the Constitutional Bills. On the 08 May 1980 the select committee tabled a report suggesting the creation of a tri-cameral or three- tier parliament to include the participation of Coloured and Indian people and exclude Black people. The proposal maintained the central control of the white minority in the South African government as the proposed inclusion of other races was not equal to the full representation carried by white members. Despite this, the Conservative Party opposed the reforms believing they undermined apartheid. The Progressive Federal Party (PFP) , a parliamentary opposition party against apartheid, also opposed these reforms convinced that they would deepen hostilities with the Black people who were excluded. The PFP were not pleased with the constitutional reform because they also wanted the inclusion of a bill of rights that would protect individual freedoms against state abuse.

The government excluded the bill of rights from the final draft of the constitution because it required the lifting of repressive laws such as the Internal Security act of 1972. The Internal Security Act gave police powers to arrest and detain people without trial for a period of renewable ninety days. The Bill of Rights, with its general claim that no man shall be denied a fair trial for an unreasonably long time, would have made this act unconstitutional or difficult to maintain. The government also refused to include the Bill of Rights arguing that South Africa is made up of racial and ethnic communities not individuals. As a result, they preferred a constitutional reform that would give autonomy to different racial groups. However, this autonomy was not equal. Whites still had control of the country with coloureds and Indians serving only a token role.

In reaction to criticism that he had no mandate to pursue these reforms, Botha proposed a Referendum in which White people could vote on their position regarding the Tricameral Parliament . On 2 November 1983, about seventy percent of white people cast a vote in favour of the reforms. The outcome of this was the establishment of a tri-cameral parliament with an executive president. The position of Prime Minister created by the South African Act of 1909 was abolished. The abolishment of the Prime Minister's position and its replacement with the executive presidency created a very powerful position for one person and it weakened the parliament.

A Cartoonist Impression of Tricameral Parliament. Source: Bottaro, Jean and Visser, Pippa. (1999). In Search of History Grade 12. Oxford: Oxford University Press Southern AfricaA Cartoonist Impression of Tricameral Parliament. Source: Bottaro, Jean and Visser, Pippa. (1999). In Search of History Grade 12. Oxford: Oxford University Press Southern Africa

The reformed Constitution now had three features. Firstly, the Tricameral Parliament with three houses ie. The House of Assembly for white people, the House of Representatives for Coloured people and the House of Delegates for Indian people. A second feature was that of Executive President, who replaced the Prime Minister in the Westminster system. Thirdly, Presidential Council was included. Black people were excluded completely. Not surprisingly the reforms were met with protests from around the country from the liberation movements who saw them as an attempt by the Government to hang on to power and to divide black people. The effect was increased mobilisation and organisation of popular resistance across racial and class lines. The United Democratic Front formed in August 1983 shortly after the proposed constitution, launched national campaigns to challenge and destabilise the apartheid regime. Campaigns that were organised by the UDF included school boycotts and work stoppages.

The Structure of the 1983 Constitution

Source: Leadership, Volume 4, Number 2(1985), p.37)

The Tricameral parliament drafted the Indian and Coloured communities into the National parliament without any real sharing of political power or decision-making. These race groups were allocated a separate tier from the Houses from the House of Assembly that represented Whites. The House of Delegates was created for Indians and a House of Representatives for Coloureds. There was an angry reaction to the proposal from both those who did not support the Government and from within the National Party. A breakaway group of those strongly opposed to the idea of racial integration formed the Conservative Party. The Indian and Coloured community also refused to participate in a segregated national parliament where the House of Assembly had more powers. African people were excluded from these reforms. National Statutory Council was established to look into the affairs of the African people. This statutory council was solely in the hands of the president himself. However, black people rejected it.

Source A: A Protest against Tricameral parliament

The United Democratic Front formed in August 1983 shortly after the proposed constitution. The UDF launched huge popular national campaigns to challenge and destabilise the apartheid regime. The Front rejected the Tricameral parliament because it divided Indian, Coloured and African people in the struggle for liberation.

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