Address by President Nelson Mandela to the Constitutional Assembly on the occasion of the adoption of the new constitution

South African History Online

Address by President Nelson Mandela to the Constitutional  Assembly on the occasion of the adoption of the new constitution

Cape Town, 8 May 1996

Honourable Deputy Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly
Distinguished Guests.

The brief seconds when the majority of Honourable Members quietly assented to
the new basic law of the land have captured, in a fleeting moment, the centuries
of history that the South African people have endured in search of a better

As one, you the representatives of the overwhelming majority of South
Africans, have given voice to the yearning of millions.

And so it has come to pass, that South Africa today undergoes her rebirth,
cleansed of a horrible past, matured from a tentative beginning, and reaching
out to the future with confidence.

The nation teetered on a knife edge over the past few days, with reports of
intractable deadlocks and an abyss in waiting. This was to be expected, given
the difficult issues we were dealing with; and given the tight negotiating
deadlines. But aren't South Africans a wonderful people, to whom the words
"deadlock" and "miracle" have come to nestle in comfortable proximity; and
alternately, to grip the national imagination like the plague!

Be that as it may, we dare not, in the midst of the excitement of last-minute
solutions, forget the magnitude of the achievement we celebrate today. For,
beyond these issues, lies a fundamental sea-change in South Africa's body
politic that this historic moment symbolises.

Honourable Deputy Chairperson;

Long before the gruelling sessions of the final moments, it had been agreed
that once and for all, South Africa will have a democratic constitution based on
that universal principle of democratic majority rule. Today, we formalise this
consensus. As such, our nation takes the historic step beyond the transitory
arrangements which obliged its representatives, by dint of law, to work together
across the racial and political divide.

Now it is universally acknowledged that unity and reconciliation are written
in the hearts of millions of South Africans. They are an indelible principle of
our founding pledge. They are the glowing fire of our New Patriotism. They shall
remain the condition for reconstruction and development, in as much as
reconstruction and development will depend on unity and reconciliation.

Our consensus speaks of the maturing of our young democracy. It speaks of the
trust that has grown in the blast furnace of practical work, as we, together,
rolled up our sleeves to tackle the real problems. Today we celebrate that
coming of age.

Long before the intense moments of the last few days, you, the
representatives of the people, had decided that open and accountable government
will be reinforced by co-operative governance among all tiers. And thus, we
strike out along a new road, in which the preoccupation of elected
representatives, at all levels of government, will be how to co-operate in the
service of the people, rather than competing for power which otherwise belongs
not to us, but to the people.

We were therefore able, in the national interest, to locate governing powers
at the level where they appropriately belong and to ensure that national
parliament is not an exclusive preserve of an imaginary national politician, but
the workplace in which representatives from all levels can pursue their

Through the Council of Provinces, the improvement of the status of Local
Government, and the style of governance based on transparency, participation and
consultation, we shall ensure that democracy indeed constitutes government by
the people, for the people.

Honourable Deputy Chairperson;

The new constitution obliges us to strive to improve the quality of life of
the people. In this sense, our national consensus recognises that there is
nothing else that can justify the existence of government but to redress the
centuries of unspeakable privations, by striving to eliminate poverty,
illiteracy, homelessness and disease. It obliges us, too, to promote the
development of independent civil society structures.

While in the past, diversity was seen by the powers-that-be as a basis for
division and domination; while in earlier negotiations, reference to such
diversity was looked at with suspicion; today we affirm in no uncertain terms
that we are mature enough to derive strength, trust and unity from the tapestry
of language, religious and cultural attributes that make up our nation.

With confidence, we are asserting that the individual rights and national
self-determination of the South African people shall not be inhibited, but
reinforced by the collective rights of communities. Through the Commission for
the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic
Communities, we have found an innovative way of addressing an issue which, when
swept under the carpet, comes back in ugly forms to haunt the architects of
artificial unity.

We are extremely proud, that the new constitution asserts equality among
South Africa's languages; and that, for the first time, the languages
particularly of the Khoi, Nama and San communities will receive the attention
they deserve, after years of being trampled upon in the most humiliating and
degrading manner.

Many new provisions on gender issues reflect the progress that we are making
as a nation towards securing equality for our women compatriots who have for far
too long suffered too many privations merely because of their gender. Yet it is
in actual practice that our ideals and intentions will be tested.

And we have not shied away from acknowledging that we are a democracy with
many other realities bequeathed by history. Not least among these realities is
the role of traditional leaders, which is not only acknowledged, but is to be
further elaborated upon, with their participation, in national and provincial

Indeed, Honourable Members, we can go on and on, demonstrating the new and
higher level of national consensus that today's ceremony represents.

What all this reflects is that we are at last maturing to become a normal
society, founded on mutual trust, bonded by mutual aspirations, and shaped by
the reality of our existence rather than the fulmination of a warped
imagination. In our racial, language, religious and sectoral diversity, as the
weak and the mighty, we are one people with one destiny.

Today, we can proudly report to the nation that the interim mandate has
essentially been fulfilled. Among others, critical institutions such as the
Constitutional Court, the Human Rights Commission and others have started doing
their work in the most splendid manner, conscious of the fact that their first
port of call is the people rather than government on high.

In reiterating their integrity and independence, the new constitution
reaffirms our commitment to the rights of citizens and the need to build genuine
equality across the board.

The welcome transformation that we are affirming today, will mean that we
have to redefine the role of some of the representatives in this Chamber. With
the setting up of the National Council of Provinces, many Honourable Senators
will enjoy the privilege of being re-deployed closer to the people.

Needless to say, this creative approach derives in part from the seriousness
with which the Senate had approached its work - all the time searching for the
correct solution to the question of their mandate and their relation to
provincial government. For this, we congratulate them, and thank them profoundly
for the enormous contribution that they have made to the beginnings of our
social transformation.

We say with confidence that the interim mandate has been fulfilled, thanks
also to the critical role that our security forces have played in protecting our
young democracy like the apple of their eye. The new constitution recognises
their importance to society. And we can say without any shadow of doubt, that it
creates even better conditions for them and other public servants, to serve with
pride and with dignity, in the full knowledge that their rights as citizens and
as employees of the state, are protected.

Honourable Deputy Chairperson;

In the final analysis, the praise that we are apt to heap upon ourselves
appears misplaced, against the backdrop of the active participation of the
people in the drafting of the new constitution.

The determination of this Assembly to ensure that the people play their
rightful role, and the meticulous planning and execution that this entailed,
broke new ground in ways of engaging society in the process of legislation.

Reaching out through the media; opening the process to inputs from across
society; and going out across the length and breadth of the country for
face-to-face interactions with communities; the Constitutional Assembly
reinvigorated civil society in a manner that no other process in recent times
has done.

Present today in the public gallery are representatives of almost every
organised sector of civil society which made their inputs into the process: the
legal fraternity, women, local communities, traditional structures, and leaders
of sectors dealing with business, labour, land issues, the media, arts and
culture, youth, the disabled, children's rights and many more.

Beyond those present are the millions who wrote letters and who took part in
public forums: from the policeman in a charge office in the furthest corner of
the Northern Province, to prisoners getting together to discuss clauses, and to
residents of Peddie in the Eastern Cape who continued with their meeting in
pouring rain to debate the role of traditional leaders...

To all of them, we say, thank you for taking your destiny into your own
hands. And we congratulate the Chairperson of the Assembly, the Deputy
Chairperson, the Management Committee in which all the parties were represented,
and the staff, for their dedication and drive to ensure that we attain this
historic moment.

Among us are representatives of the international community who have honoured
us by sharing in this, our moment of joy. Yet the boundaries that might separate
our countries cannot subtract from your own labours in ensuring that South
Africa achieves her freedom, and that we emerge with a constitution of which, we
hope, humanity shall be proud. Directly and indirectly, your contributions and
your force of example, provided the fountain from which we drank with relish.

This constitution is our own humble contribution to democracy and the culture
human rights world-wide; and it is our pledge to humanity that nothing will
steer us from this cause.

Honourable Members;

Ultimately, the lodestar governing our movement into the future is the
unstoppable force of democracy. You have accomplished what you have, to the
extent that you represented the aspirations of the people and the abiding values
of our nation.

In this way, you were paying tribute to the shining example of those, like
John Mafukuzela Dube, Olive Schreiner, Reverend Calata, Dr Naicker, Dr Abduraman
and others who, long years ago, called for equality and democracy.

You were acknowledging the suffering of the many witnesses who are appearing
before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and many more citizens,
dehumanised, maimed and deprived, but unbowed and unshaken in their confidence
in our young democracy.

You were recognising the indelible role of pioneers of the negotiations
process such as Oliver Tambo and visionaries within the apartheid establishment
who were able to sense the momentum of history.

Indeed, you were paying homage to Chris Hani, Johan Heyns and other martyrs
whose love for their country and belief in change inspired more than their
immediate supporters.

In tribute to them, we stand today before our people and humanity to present
this our new basic law of the land, whose founding principles of human dignity,
non-racialism and non-sexism, and whose commitment to universal adult suffrage,
regular elections and multi-party democracy are immutable.

This is our national soul, our compact with one another as citizens,
underpinned by our highest aspirations and our deepest apprehensions.

Our pledge is: Never and never again shall the laws of our land rend our
people apart or legalise their oppression and repression. Together, we shall
march, hand-in-hand, to a brighter future.


President's remarks at the end of his speech to the Constitutional Assembly

Cape Town, 8 May 1996

May I add that one principle influenced our approach in the negotiations that
started at Kempton Park, and in the negotiations involving this constitution. In
adopting this constitution, we discussed our strategy very carefully, and the
principle that we established was that there should be neither winners nor
losers. South Africa as a whole must be the winner.

This is a principle which we have observed over the past two years in the
Government of National Unity. The majority party must not abuse its power and
reduce other political parties in the Government to the status of being mere
rubber stamps, having merely to yield to the decisions of the majority. We have
advanced in the task of building national unity, because we have conscientiously
stuck to and observed these two principles.

But everybody will understand that we have a commitment and a mandate from
the overwhelming majority of our people in this country to transform South
Africa from an apartheid state to a non-racial state, to address the question of
joblessness and homelessness, to build all the facilities that have been enjoyed
for centuries by a tiny minority.

We have that commitment and we are determined to ensure that all the people
of South Africa live a dignified life in which there is no poverty, no
illiteracy, no ignorance and no disease. That is our commitment. We are
determined to honour that pledge, and anybody who tries to block us from
attaining that objective or carrying out our mandate in order to better the
lives of all the people of South Africa.

Having said that, we are addressing these basic needs in South Africa. I want
to repeat what I said before. We are dealing with a situation in which if one
talks to Whites, they think that only Whites exist in this country, and they
look at problems from the point of view of Whites. They forget about Blacks,
namely Coloured, Africans and Indians. That is one side of the problem. However,
we have another problem. When one talks to Africans, Coloured and Indians, they
make exactly the same mistake. They think that the Whites in this country do not
exist. They think that we have brought about this transformation by defeating
the White minority and that we are dealing with a community that is now lying
prostrate on the ground, begging for mercy, to whom we can dictate. Both
tendencies are wrong. We want men and women who are committed to our mandate,
but who can rise above their ethnic groups and think in terms of South Africa as
a whole.

We have now adopted this constitution, and its significance has been dealt
with by almost all the speakers here. However, there are still concerns on the
part of the minorities in this country. The fact that we have adopted this
constitution does not mean that we are not going to address those concerns. We
will continue searching for solutions because we want everybody to feel that he
or she is part and parcel of our efforts to resolve the problem of South Africa.
That is the position, and the adoption of this constitution is the beginning of
our efforts to resolve the problems of this country.

Last updated : 05-Jul-2012

This article was produced for South African History Online on 31-Mar-2011