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Democratic Constitution in South Africa

"I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." Nelson Mandela.

He was being tried for treason by the white South African government. He and seven other leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for daring to oppose the apartheid regime in his country. He spent the next 28 years in South Africa’s most dreaded prison, Robben Island. Apartheid divided the people and labelled them on the basis of their skin colour. The native people of South Africa are black in colour. They made up about three-fourth of the population and were called ‘blacks’. Besides these two groups, there were people of mixed races who were called ‘coloured’ and people who migrated from India.

The white rulers treated all nonwhites as inferiors. The non-whites did not have voting rights. The apartheid system was particularly oppressive for the blacks. They were forbidden from living in white areas. They could work in white areas only if they had a permit. Trains, buses, taxis, hotels, hospitals, schools and colleges, libraries, cinema halls, theatres, beaches, swimming pools, Apartheid was the name of a system of racial discrimination unique to South Africa. 


The white Europeans imposed this system on South Africa. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the trading companies from Europe occupied it with arms and force; in the way they occupied India. But unlike India, a large number of ‘whites’ had settled in South Africa and became the local rulers. The system of public toilets, were all separate for the whites and blacks. This was called segregation. They could not even visit the churches where the whites worshipped. Blacks could not form associations or protest against the terrible treatment. Since 1950, the blacks, coloured and Indians fought against the apartheid system.

They launched protest marches and strikes. The African National Congress (ANC) was the umbrella organisation that led the struggle against the policies of Segregation. This included many workers’ unions and the Communist Party. Many sensitive whites also joined the ANC to oppose apartheid and played a leading role in this struggle. Several countries denounced apartheid as unjust and racist. But the white racist government continued to rule by detaining, torturing and killing thousands of black and coloured people.


White South African Riot

As protests and struggles against apartheid had increased, the government realized that they could no longer keep the blacks under their rule through repression. The white regime changed its policies. Discriminatory laws were repealed. Ban on political parties and restrictions on the media were lifted. After 28 years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela walked out of the jail as a free man. Finally, at the midnight of 26 April 1994, the new national flag of the Republic of South Africa was unfurled marking the newly born democracy in the world. The apartheid government came to an end, paving way for the formation of a multi-racial government. Mandela, the first president of this new South Africa, on this extraordinary transition said:

"Historical enemies succeeded in negotiating a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy exactly because we were prepared to accept the inherent capacity for goodness in the other. My wish is that South Africans never give up on the belief in goodness, that they cherish that faith in human beings is the cornerstone of our democracy."

After the emergence of the new democratic South Africa, black leaders appealed to fellow blacks to forgive the whites for the atrocities they had committed while in power. They said let us build a new South Africa based on equality of all races and men and women, on democratic values, social justice and human rights. The party that ruled through oppression and brutal killings and the party that led the freedom struggle sat together to draw up a common constitution. After two years of discussion and debate they came out with one of the finest constitutions the world has ever had. This constitution gave to its citizens the most extensive rights available in any country. Together, they decided that in the search for a solution to the problems, nobody should be excluded; no one should be treated as a demon. They agreed that everybody should become part of the solution, whatever they might have done or represented in the past. The preamble to the South African Constitution sums up this spirit.

The South African constitution inspires democrats all over the world. A state denounced by the entire world till recently as the most undemocratic one is now seen as a model of democracy. Speaking on the South African Constitution, Mandela said:

"The Constitution of South Africa speaks of both the past and the future. On the one hand, it is a solemn pact in which we, as South Africans, declare to one another that we shall never permit a repetition of our racist, brutal and repressive past. But it is more than that. It is also a charter for the transformation of our country into one which is truly shared by all its people — a country which in the fullest sense belongs to all of us, black and white, women and men." This image captures the spirit of South Africa today. South Africans call themselves a ‘rainbow nation’.


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