The Constitution of South Africa has an interesting history.
In 1910, Britain withdrew from the government of South Africa and the country became a Union. The new Government adopted its new Constitution in 1910, which effectively gave rights to the white minority and took away the voting rights of the majority. On 31 May 1961 South Africa became a Republic and adopted its second Constitution. This ensured that the rights of the Blacks were taken away. In 1983 South Africa’s third Constitution was signed and this created a tricameral Parliament. There was a separate Parliament for Whites, Coloureds and Indians.
This Constitution excluded the Blacks and automatically made them citizens of the homeland where they were born and they had no rights outside these homelands.
On 2 February 1990 the National Party Government unbanned political parties, released political prisoners and detainees and unbanned political activists, such as Nelson Mandela. This fundamentally lead to the negotiation process to end the apartheid regime and to begin building a democratic South Africa.
In 1994 twenty-six parties negotiated and adopted an interim Constitution that gave the voting right to all South African citizens. This Constitution was in place for two years and during this time the newly elected ANC Government worked as the Constitutional Assembly and drew up the final Constitution.
Former President Nelson Mandela officially signed the New Constitution of South Africa on 10 December 1996. Sharpeville was chosen as the venue for the signing of one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world. Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly, best explained the reason the Vaal was chosen to play host to this historic event:
“At Vereeniging in 1902, a treaty between the British and the Boers effectively disenfranchised the black majority. And here at Sharpeville, tragic events revealed starkly how far removed we were from human rights culture.
Here at Sharpeville, in Vereeniging, both powerful symbols of past relationships between South Africans, we are making a break with the past. A break with the pain, a break with betrayal. We are starting a new chapter.”
The historical importance of the negotiation process that took place in Vereeniging in 1902 to end the Anglo-Boer War and the tragedy of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 played as the backdrop to the signing of Constitution. The survivors of the Sharpeville Massacre were invited as honourary guests on the day.
After the signing Mandela proceeded to Sharpeville where the shootings took place and laid a wreath on a memorial stone to honour the victims of the Sharpeville Massacre, after which he opened Constitution Square at the Vereeniging Civic Centre. In his speech on 10 December 1996, he said: “… we will redeem the faith, which fired those whose blood drenched the soil of Sharpeville and elsewhere in our country and beyond.
Today we humbly pay tribute to them in a special way. This is a monument to their heroism.
Today, together as South Africans from all walks of life and from virtually every school of political thought, we reclaim the unity that the Vereeniging of nine decades ago sought to deny.”
The Constitution became law on 18 December 1996 and for the first time all South Africans of every race, creed, religion and sex have the right to human dignity, equality and freedom.