Friday, September 18, 2009

Our Constitution is a sacred covenant

By


A warning is in order. Ours is a fragile society with a seriously conflicted history. Using race and ethnicity for populist politics is deadly dangerous in a society like ours. If it becomes the fashion in the Malema generation, it will quickly spread beyond the mere sidelining of minorities. It will rip like wildfire through tribe and clan, where Africa as a whole has a record that should be a warning to us all.

I participated the other day in an unusual gathering of people who were involved in the secret negotiations that took place in the 1980s between the old South African regime and the outlawed ANC, which opened the way to our negotiated settlement and the miraculous birth of the new South Africa.

The gathering was organised by the BBC for a radio programme called "Reunions," which was broadcast on BBC's Radio-4 last Sunday. The idea was to bring together some key participants to reminisce about that process which brought about one of the most remarkable events in the history of the world -- when a ruling ethno-nationalist regime which had not been defeated decided to hand over power to an antagonist which had not been victorious. An event so unusual as to be regarded by outsiders as still worth recalling, while here at home its true meaning and importance is sadly becoming blurred.

Not all the participants in those secret talks took part in the programme, for there were many. But it was an interesting small group which included Niel Barnard (deelteken over the e), who as head of the old regime's National Intelligence Agency led a small committee of high-powered bureaucrats who held a total of 47 secret meetings with Nelson Mandela while he was still in prison; Professor Willie Esterhuizen, who led a group of well-connected Afrikaners who met several times with ANC exiles in an English country manor; former President Thabo Mbeki , who led the ANC group to those and other meetings with white South African groups in Senegal, Ghana, Paris and Zimbabwe; former Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad , who accompanied Mbeki to those meetings; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was a pillar of the black resistance movement here at home.

My own role was primarily that of an observer. I had followed these events closely as a journalist, participated in some, and wrote a book on the whole process, "Tomorrow is Another Country," which later became a BBC television series. Audio sections from that series were intercut in Sunday's programme.

But what struck me anew as I sat there reminiscing with the others about those events was what an amazing process it was, and how important for the new nation that was born out of it.

As Barnard put it in the programme: "The South African Government took a decision, consciously, to negotiate themselves out of power." I know of no other instance in history where a government has done that, least of all an ethno-nationalist government representing a people who regarded themselves as a threatened and vulnerable volk, or nation, in a country and a continent numerically dominated by others.

Yes, they were under international pressure and the black majority population was in a state of uprising, rendering some black townships ungovernable. But the white government was far from facing defeat. It had the most powerful military machine in Africa and could easily have remained in power by force and repression for at least another 20 years.

For its part, while the ANC could have continued causing serious disturbances there was no prospect of its being able to win a military victory any time soon. Oliver Tambo was not about to ride into Pretoria atop a Russian tank.

So there was a stalemate, and in that condition both sides recognised that if the struggle raged on for another 20 years South Africa would be reduced to a wasteland. Neither side wanted that. So the stage was set for a negotiated settlement.

That was the real importance of those secret talks. That is where the basic understandings between the two main protagonists were reached, later to be hammered out through formal negotiations into an outline that all parties and all races agreed to in a unique moment of national consensus in this hitherto deeply divided society.

And so, finally, the deal was embodied in our new Constitution.

That is the true value of our Constitution. It is not a document drafted by some detached group of peacemaking law advisers. There were no outside mediators. That Constitution is the product of a historically unique process undertaken by our own people, a process that raised all of us above ourselves so that we could end our own suffering and save our country, when we vowed collectively to end our ethnic conflicts and never return to them.

It was a deal we all made with ourselves. A sacred deal. Nelson Mandela, the chief participant in the process and the personification of it, understood this well when in his inaugural address he called it a covenant.

A covenant is a pledge, a binding pledge with sacred overtones.

"We enter into a covenant," he said on that memorable day, "that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity -- a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world."

Then came the pledge, from a man who had once told a judge whom he believed was about to sentence him to death, that he was indeed prepared to die for the cause of nonracialism: "Never, never, never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another."

That pledge, that covenant, is the very essence of our Constitution, distilled from the process that produced it.

That, in my book, makes it sacred. Which is why it distresses me, and worries me, to hear some people in power beginning to blur the meaning of our Constitution and of the institutions that have been put in place to interpret and protect it.

President Jacob Zuma , who has had problems with the courts, says judges are not God. True. But the Constitution is sacred and the judges of the Constitutional Court are the specially qualified human beings we have chosen to be its custodians.

Judge-President John Hlope publicly demeans both the Chief Justice and the Constitutional Court as a whole -- and the Judicial Service Commission lets him get away with it without so much as a proper hearing. Now Judge Hlope is himself seeking to become a member of that court. As the old Afrikaans warning goes: "Jy maak wolf skaapwagter."

And now we have Julius Malema, who as ANC Youth League leader is presumably the person the ANC is grooming for the future leadership of this country, taking aim at the very heart of Mandela's covenant -- nonracialism. Malema thinks it is wrong that white, coloured and Asian people should hold the government's key economic portfolios. Never mind their qualifications or the roles they played in the struggle against apartheid, their jobs should go to black Africans.

Yes, ANC secretary-general Gwede Montashe has countermanded him. But now there appears to be a plot to oust Mantashe among others. There is turmoil and confusion in the ANC.

A warning is in order. Ours is a fragile society with a seriously conflicted history. Using race and ethnicity for populist politics is deadly dangerous in a society like ours. If it becomes the fashion in the Malema generation, it will quickly spread beyond the mere sidelining of minorities. It will rip like wildfire through tribe and clan, where Africa as a whole has a record that should be a warning to us all.

The Constitution is all that stands between us and such a disaster. It must be handled with care.

6 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

I would like to make two points:

1. The NP government were having these talks without their own people knowing what was being negotiated. No input was asked for - they decided what they wanted. At least they got their money and one even got a Nobel peace prize for selling out the very people that he represented.

2. Did they really think that the ANC/blacks would remember the bullshit Mandela spewed: "We enter into a covenant," he said on that memorable day, "..that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity -- a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world"... Did these stupid white negotiators really think that these shifty eyed black "people" would respect these words. Did they learn nothing from Retief? Well look at the fwonderful country SA has become - the f@cked-up rainbow nation. Thanks you traitors.

Doberman said...

Anon 4:21 said "Thanks you traitors." Indeed. How a powerful government could so meekly hand over power to a ragtag bunch of misfits that couldn't blow up a firecracker on the 4th of July defies logic? Look at what has become of the great experiment.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the citizens of the RSA (not Zululand, Xhosaland etc) were sold out. However we sholdn't ignore the fact that everything was controlled from abroad, and those in charge in SA had little say!
Remember, those running the "western World" always intended for the entire South Africa to become a black-run mess, so that they could milk it at will, and this meant the white Africans could never be allowed ANY independence or autonomy! Indeed the enitre history of the sub-continent had to be re-written, and it has, which is how individuals like Black Coffee (and even the youth of SA) have a otally mistaken view of the history of SA!

Use your common sense and all will become clear!

Regards,
Common Sense

Viking said...

The Constitution of this country is priceless, and is the only thing standing in the way of anarchy. The NP could've got a better deal maybe, but the Constitution as it stands is worth protecting. If anything happens to it, the country collapses like a house of cards.

FishEagle said...

The constitution can not be implemented. It is doomed to fail because it is not practical. It's simply too 'good.' I've seen this happen time and again with government policies that have just fallen by the wayside after becoming worthless pieces of paper. It's quite frustrating, not to mention worrying.

Anonymous said...

RSA's constitution was meaningless to the approx 300 000 murdered since 1994. Wake up AS, you talk kak paid for by your MSM bosses!