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President Cyril Ramaphosa, together with the Speaker of the National Assembly Ms Baleka Mbete, and Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces Ms Thandi Modise, launched six theme books on the Character of the Democratic State; Structure of Government; Relationship Between Spheres of Government; Judicial System in our New Democratic Dispensation; and Specialised Structures of Government, to celebrate the drafting of our Constitution and the centenary birthdays of Madiba and MaSisulu at Parliament yesterday.

This launch coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Constitution which came into effect on 4 February 1997 – and the establishment of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on 6 February 1997. These are key milestones of our country’s democratic transition. Our Constitution has since its inception been the totem of our human rights culture which is revered across the globe. And its principle has inspired civil liberties and the tradition of constitutional democracy in Africa. This is what has set South Africa apart and there is no better institution to celebrate these achievements than the very institution that incepted it. To date, even matured democracies benchmark their civil liberties against it. And it remains an envy of many countries across the globe. Out of our Constitution flowed the NCOP. Its inception was a remarkable achievement.

Giving a context to the launch, the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, Ms Thandi Modise, acknowledged the honour of celebrating the Constitution of our young and matured democracy. A Constitution that led to the transition that provided a historic bridge between the past and the future of our country.

But also, this event marked the celebration of the centenary celebration of Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu, the giants of the liberation struggle whose agitations led to the adoption of a shared vision of a better society, whose principles are enshrined in our Constitution. And the launch of these books on the drafting of our Constitution is a befitting hour to both of them, she said.

A year-long centenary programme of the South African Legislative Sector to celebrate and honour their legacy has been conceived. “We started a range of activities in March last year to commemorate the 20 years of the Constitution, as well as the establishment of the NCOP. In 2016 we had a 20-year anniversary of the signing into law of the Constitution by former President Nelson Mandela on 10 December 1996. And the inception of the NCOP on 6 February 1997.”

These activities are meant to honour the political masterminds, and negotiators who pioneered our Constitution. “This is to reinforce and remind the electorate of the significant transformational changes introduced by the Constitution.”

Of the 490 Members of Parliament (MPs) involved in the drafting of the Constitution, only 19 are still serving as MPs uninterrupted, one of which is the Speaker of the National Assembly, Ms Baleka Mbete.

The drafting of the Constitution was a deeply personal experience, a character-building and an enriching process for all those involved, she said. “It did not only change each one of us, it also changed the edifice of our country.” 

This process reminds us of what is possible when we all come together for the good of our people. “The restoration of the dignity of our people was at the centre of this Constitution. The Bill of Rights has helped to advance the quality of life of the vulnerable and the marginalised,” she said. 

These gains would not have been achieved if the giants of our struggle, Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu, did not stand tall against all odds. “They stood tall in our darkest moments and we now enjoy the fruits of their unconditional sacrifices,” she said. 

We celebrate these giants because they had a profound respect for our Constitution. To underscore that, she quoted Mandela stating that “those who drafted the South African Constitution chose a legal path and are in the vanguard for change of an instrument fashioned for a better life for all”. 

Today’s historic celebration of the theme books on the drafting of our Constitution is historical in that it happens during our Heritage Month, whose theme is #write your story. “Through this launch, we are writing our story as a nation. We are writing the history of our democracy,” said the House Chairperson of the National Assembly, Ms Thoko Didiza.

Through these books, we are building a library to be utilised by current and the next generations to better understand our country’s transition from apartheid to democracy, she said.

Explaining the various contents of the six theme books that were launched yesterday, she said the Books on Committees that drafted the Constitution contain the reports and discussions that took place during this process. Theme Book 1 contains the discussions about the character of a democratic state; Theme Book 2 the structure of the executive authority in post-apartheid South Africa; Theme Book 3 deals with corporative governance; Theme Book 4 deals with the Bill of Rights; Theme Book 5 contains discussions on the nature of the Judiciary in a democratic state; and Theme Book 6 reflects on Institutions Supporting Democracy.

“The comic book on our Constitution is meant to present it in a simpler and easy to read book, and it is recommended that it should be in all our constituency offices,” she said. All these books are a befitting celebration of our Constitution and the centenary of Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu’s unyielding contribution to our democracy.

“To be part of this momentous occasion that celebrates the spirit and transformational purpose of our Constitution, is like walking alongside history, a history that is replayed and remade,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the chief architects of our Constitution.

“We have come to launch that which tells the story of our democracy and the constitutional journey we embarked upon more than two decades ago. There were many challenges which we had to grapple with. And we had a country that had a different look and feel politically,” he said.

“But when it was concluded, our Constitution gave us fresh air. And it should not be reduced to an archival function, but should always be used to inform, to empower and to provide a better interpretation of our constitutional rights,” he said.

As we celebrate it, we are conscious of Nelson Mandela and Alberina Sisulu’s contribution to its realisation. They both belong to the special generation that dared to have imagination. “They imagined a future and society that was very different in every respect from the one they occupied. They imagined a society that has a right to life, to security, and to justice as an unalienable universal right,” he said.

The current debate on land has shown that our Constitution is not an artefact that should be placed in a museum, “it’s a living document that can change our country and create a better and brighter future for all our people”.

Our Constitution has now taken a centre stage in our endeavour to secure equitable land redistribution. “If there was a moment in which South Africans engaged in constitutional speak, it is this one.”

This would help to inform themselves about their Constitution: their birth certificate, “hopefully this debate will help to change views, allow people to state their fears and articulate the hope and eventually help South Africans to find one another,” he said.

As we seek to heal the wounds caused by the deprivation of land from its rightful owners, “we want to be filled with the spirit of Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu. And should inform us as we chart our way forward,” he said.  

By Abel Mputing

12 September 2018