Two Commissions of Inquiry

Even before PW Botha became the Prime Minister, Prime Minister John Vorster appointed the Theron Commission in 1977 to look into the affairs of the Coloured sector of the population. The commission’s report recommended that the parliamentary system – which, although based on the Westminster model, restricted representation only to Whites – should be changed to reflect a plural and multicultural society.

In the late 1970s, a commission chaired by Alwyn Schlebusch, the then Minister of Justice and Interior, was appointed to look into the question of developing proposals ‘for a new constitutional system that would make provision for Coloured, Indian and White autonomy over the affairs of their respective communities’. The Commission of Inquiry on the Constitution met for the first time on 26 July1979.

The Schlebusch Commission (not to be confused with an earlier commission into ‘affected organisations’ also chaired by Schlebusch in the early 1970s) recommended a new constitution, which would see the all-White Senate be abolished and replaced by a President’s Council, to consist of 60 members drawn from the leaders of Coloured, Indian and White parties. The commission also recommended that the post of vice president be created, and that the vice president chair the President’s Council.

PW Botha established a Special Cabinet Committee (SCC) to look into the recommendations of the two commissions. The SCC, chaired by the former Minister of the Interior, Chris Heunis, oversaw the process of instituting the new proposals, and Heunis was appointed Minister of Constitutional Development and Planning. But the SCC was also divided by the co-presence of conservative and relatively liberal elements. Foreign Minister Pik Botha, Chris Heunis and Gerrit Viljoen (Minister of Education and Training, i.e. Black education) were the liberals on the committee, while the Minister of Law and Order, Louis le Grange, Minister of Education and Transvaal National Party leaderFW de Klerk, and Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Kobie Coetsee represented the conservative wing.

The proposals for the new dispensation rested on the assumption that Black people belonged to the ‘countries’ of the homeland system, and that they were not entitled to citizenship and representation in ‘South Africa proper’. Under this system, it was inconceivable that Coloureds and Indians could accede to their own homelands, and they were seen as possible additions to the White bloc, and more importantly, to prevent these two groups from allying themselves with Black opposition to Apartheid. PW Botha, in a speech in de Aar (Northern Cape) in 1983, spelt out this reasoning:

‘We in the NP say: either we drive the Coloureds into the arms of the country's enemies or we try to make an arrangement so that there can be peace behind the backs of South African soldiers and police and we can look the enemy in the face. If the war should expand, do you believe that only Whites could defend all the country's borders, the sea and airspace? People who think so are out of touch with reality. This is why today there are thousands of loyal Coloured policemen and soldiers fighting against Communism for South Africa. Should or should not this be so?’

Nevertheless, sections of the NP rejected the proposals, leading to a split in February 1982 from their ranks and the creation of a new, White right-wing party, the Conservative Party, under the leadership of Andries Treurnicht.

• Desai, Ashwin, Arise ye Coolies: Apartheid and the Indian, 1960-1995, 1996, Impact Africa Publishing.
•  Heunis, Jan; The Inner Circle, 2007, Jonathan Ball Publishers
•   Omond, Roger. South Africa's Post-Apartheid Constitution, 1987,  Third World Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, After Apartheid (Apr., 1987), pp. 622-637
•  Spence, JE,  South Africa: Reform versus Reaction, 1981,  The World Today, Vol. 37, No. 12 (Dec., 1981), pp. 461-468
•  Welsh, David.  Constitutional Changes in South Africa, 1984,  Vol. 83, No. 331 (Apr., 1984), pp. 147-162
•  Welsh, David, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, 2009, Jonathan Ball Publishers

Last updated : 07-Feb-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 07-Feb-2014