31 May 2010 – the centenary of South Africa

Editor June 1, 2010

This from the FW de Klerk Foundation…

We should remember 31 May 2010 because it is the centenary of the day on which South Africa, as we know it, became a country. Whether or not the Union was conceived in sin, whether or not the offspring was legitimate, there can be no doubt that the infant that was born on that day established the form of the present South Africa. The decisions taken at the National Convention that preceded the birth of the Union also created the framework within which our subsequent history took place. Our history would have been very, very different had the delegates to the Union Convention failed to reach agreement or had they devised different ground rules for the new state.

The idea of union was vigorously promoted by the British imperialists of the time. There was a strong sense that the British colonies in South Africa – the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange River Colony and the Transvaal Colony – should unite to form a new dominion in much the same manner as their counterparts in Canada and Australia had already done. The restoration of self-government to the two former Boer republics in 1907 was quickly followed by moves toward Union. A National Convention – including 33 representatives from the four colonies – was convened on 12 October 1908 and had by 11 May 1909 reached agreement on a draft constitution. The constitution – in the form of the South Africa Act – was adopted by the British Parliament on 20 September 1909. 31 May 1910 – the 8th anniversary of the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging – was set as the birth date for the new Union.

Decisions that were taken at the National Convention – and that were subsequently incorporated in the 1910 Constitution – created the framework for the following 84 years of our history. The most important was, perhaps, the decision that South Africa would be a union in which Parliament would be supreme.

As commentators noted at the time, the new constitution possessed none of the characteristics of a federation: there was no supreme constitution; no distribution of real power between constituent states; and no supreme court to interpret the constitution and to limit the actions of the executive. Most notable was the fact that the new constitution included few if any guarantees for the rights of black, coloured and Indian South Africans. It endorsed the status quo that had existed in the four colonies before union. In the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony only whites could vote; in Natal blacks could qualify for the vote but under conditions that in practice made the franchise virtually impossible. Only in the Cape Colony was there any meaningful franchise for black and coloured people. The theoretical criterion was that any man of any race who could comply with certain property qualifications and who could write his name, could qualify for the vote.

As Keir Hardie, the Scottish Socialist leader, observed during the debate in Britain on the South Africa Act, the purpose of the Act was “to unify the white races, to disenfranchise the coloured races and not to promote union between the races of South Africa”. His observation was accurate: everything in the new dispensation was geared to accommodating, and reconciling, the interests of the white groups – including recognition of the equal status of Dutch and English and protection of white economic interests.

Nevertheless, for the subsequent fifty years South African politics was characterised by the continuing struggle for dominance between the two white communities – between Afrikaner nationalists on the one hand, and whites who favoured participation in the British Empire and Commonwealth, on the other. This struggle reached its conclusion in 1961 with the declaration of the Republic.

After 1910 only limited attention was given to the position of black, Asian and coloured South Africans – while the existing franchise of blacks and coloureds in the Cape was relentlessly eroded and finally abolished. However, after 1961 the focus of domestic politics and international attention shifted inexorably to the constitutional position of blacks. The National Party’s response was initially to try to dismember the geographic entity that had been created in 1910 by granting independence to black homelands. Transkei, Ciskei, Bophuthatswana and Venda accepted ‘independence’ – but the remaining national states steadfastly refused to do so. In 1983 the Government tried to bring Coloured and Indian South Africans into the constitutional system by means of the Tricameral Parliament. However, the new dispensation was rejected by most of the supposed beneficiaries and led to increasingly vocal calls by the UDF and others for universal franchise. By 1986 the National Party had begun to accept the necessity of accommodating the political aspirations of all South Africans in a common constitutional system.

These developments finally culminated in the initiatives that F W de Klerk launched on 2 February 1990. The constitutional process that ensued differed fundamentally from the National Convention that had led to the creation of the Union of South Africa. Most notably, it included representatives of all South Africa’s communities. Whereas the Union of South Africa had been conceived and finally approved by a foreign power, Britain, the negotiations that led to the establishment of the New South Africa were entirely home-grown. The Constitution that emerged in 1996 was very different from the 1910 Constitution: the Constitution – and not Parliament – was supreme; it contained a Bill or Rights that protected the fundamental rights of all South Africans; and it established a Constitutional Court with the power to ensure that all branches of government adhere to the Rule of Law and to the provisions of the Bill of Rights. Most importantly, the new Constitution recognised the equal rights and equal status of all South Africans, regardless of race, gender, language or sexual orientation.

We have travelled a long way since 31 May 1910. Although we are still confronted by many serious challenges, we have a moved to a system that it is inclusive and that is based on the rule of law. Nevertheless, none of this would have been possible – and the history of the past hundred years would have been dramatically different – had the 1908 National Convention not reached agreement on the union of the four colonies and the great variety of people who lived in them. For better or worse, 31 May 1910 was the birth date of South Africa and should be celebrated as such.

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Daar is alle rede waarom elke Suid-Afrikaner die honderd jaar sedert die totstandkoming van die Unie van Suid-Afrika op 31 Mei 2010 moet vier. Of die nuwe land wat op 31 Mei 1910 gebore is nou in sonde ontvang is of nie, die realiteit is dat Suid-Afrika, met sy bestaande grense en bevolkingsamestelling, op daardie dag ontstaan het.
Dit is ook waar dat die wyse waarop die nuweling verwek en gebore was sedertdien feitlik elke aspek van ons nasionale geskiedenis beïnvloed het. ‘n Deeglike begrip van die proses wat gelei het tot die geboorte van die Unie van Suid-Afrika help ons om latere ontwikkelinge en ons huidige toestand te verstaan.

Die idee van die unie was sterk bevorder deur die Britse imperialiste van die tyd. Daar was ‘n sterk gevoel dat die Britse kolonies in Suid-Afrika – die Kaapkolonie, Natal, die Oranjerivierkolonie en die Transvaalkolonie – moet verenig om ‘n nuwe dominium op ‘n soortgelyke wyse te vorm as hoe hul eweknieë in Kanada en Australië dit toe reeds gedoen het. Die herstel van selfbestuur aan die twee voormalige Boererepublieke in 1907 is gevolg deur vinnige skuiwe in die rigting van Uniewording. ‘n Nasionale konvensie – wat 33 verteenwoordigers van die vier kolonies ingesluit het – is byeengeroep op 12 Oktober 1908 en het teen 11 Mei 1909 ‘n ooreenkoms bereik met die oog op ‘n konsepgrondwet. Dié grondwet – in die vorm van die South Africa Act – is deur die Britse parlement aanvaar op 20 September 1909. 31 Mei 1910 – die 8ste herdenking van die Vrede van Vereeniging – was vasgestel as die geboortedatum vir die nuwe Unie.

Die besluite wat by die Nasionale Konvensie geneem is – en wat gevolglik opgeneem is in die 1910-grondwet – het die fondament gelê en die raamwerk geskep vir die volgende 84 jaar van ons geskiedenis. Die mees belangrike was, miskien, die besluit dat Suid-Afrika ‘n unie sou wees waarbinne die Parlement die oppergesag sal hê.

Soos wat kommentators in die tyd op gewys het, het die nuwe grondwet geen eienskappe van ‘n federasie besit nie: daar was geen hoogste grondwet; geen werklike verdeling van mag tussen deelstate; en geen hoogste hof om die grondwet te vertolk en gevolglik die uitvoerende gesag te beperk nie. In plaas daarvan was die parlement, en nie die grondwet nie, oppermagtig; mag was nie verdeel tussen deelstate en ‘n federale regering nie, maar het uiteindelik gesetel in die parlement; en die howe het niks meer gesag as in Brittanje gehad waar hulle net opgetree het as uitleggers van die grondwet nie.

Mees merkwaardig is die feit dat die nuwe grondwet weinig, indien enige, waarborge vir die regte van swart, bruin en Indiër Suid-Afrikaners ingesluit het. Dit het die status quo wat voor uniewording in die vier kolonies bestaan het bekragtig. In die Transvaal en die Oranjeriverkolonie kon net blankes stem; in Natal kon swart mense wel kwalifiseer om te stem, maar dan onder voorwaardes wat die kiesreg in die praktyk bykans onbekombaar gemaak het. Net in die Kaap was daar ‘n betekenisvolle franchise vir swart en bruin mense. Die teoretiese maatstaf was dat enige man van enige ras wat kon voldoen aan sekere eiendomsvereistes en wat sy naam kon skryf, kon kwalifiseer vir stemreg.

Soos Keir Hardie, die Skotse Sosialisteleier, opgemerk het was die doel van die South Africa Act “om die wit rasse te verenig, stemreg van die gekleurde rasse te weerhou en nie om eenheid te bevorder tussen die rasse van Suid-Afrika nie.” Sy waarneming was korrek: alles in die nuwe bedeling was gerig die wit groepe te akkommodeer en te versoen – insluitend die toekenning van gelyke status aan Nederlands en Engels en die beskerming van wit ekonomiese belange.

Tog, vir die daaropvolgende vyftig jaar was Suid-Afrikaanse politiek oorheers deur die voortdurende stryd om dominansie tussen die twee wit gemeenskappe – tussen die Afrikaner-nasionaliste aan die een kant, en blankes wat ten gunste was van deelname aan die Britse Ryk en die Statebond aan die ander kant. Dié stryd het afsluiting bereik in 1961 met die totstandkoming van die Republiek.

Na 1910 was slegs beperkte aandag gegee aan die posisie van swart, asiaatiese en bruin Suid-Afrikaners – terwyl die bestaande burgerregte van die swartes en kleurlinge in die Kaap onverbiddelik uitgehol en uiteindelik afgeskaf is. Maar na 1961 het die fokus van binnelandse politiek en internasionale aandag onverbiddelik verskuif na die grondwetlike posisie van swartes. Die Nasionale Party se reaksie was aanvanklik om te probeer om die geografiese eenheid van 1910 te verdeel deur onafhanklikheid te skenk aan swart tuislande. Transkei, Ciskei, Bophuthatswana en Venda het ‘onafhanklikheid’ aanvaar – maar die oorblywende nasionale deelstate het onwrikbaar geweier om dit te doen. In 1983 het die Regering probeer om Bruin en Indiese Suid-Afrikaners in ‘n nuwe grondwetlike bestel te bring deur middel van ‘n Driekamerparlement. Die nuwe bedeling is egter verwerp deur meeste van die veronderstelde begunstigdes en het gelei tot steeds luider oproepe van die UDF en andere vir universele stemreg. Teen 1986 het die Nasionale Party begin om die noodsaaklikheid te aanvaar van die akkommodering van die politieke aspirasies van alle Suid-Afrikaners in ‘n gesamentlike grondwetlike bestel.

Hierdie ontwikkelinge het uiteindelik uitgeloop op die inisiatiewe wat FW de Klerk op 2 Februarie 1990 wat van stapel gestuur het. Die grondwetlike proses wat daaruit gevloei het verskil fundamenteel van die Nasionale Konvensie wat gelei het tot die Unie van Suid-Afrika. Mees opvallend is dat dit verteenwoordigers ingesluit het van al Suid-Afrika se gemeenskappe. Waar die Unie van Suid-Afrika in die lewe geroep en uiteindelik goedgekeur is deur ‘n buitelandse mag, Brittanje, was die onderhandelinge wat gelei het tot die vestiging van die Nuwe Suid-Afrika heeltemal tuisgemaak. Die Grondwet wat ontstaan het in 1996 was baie anders as die 1910-Grondwet: die Grondwet – en nie die Parlement – was oppermagtig; dit het ‘n Handves van Regte bevat om die fundamentele regte van alle Suid-Afrikaners te beskerm; en dit het ‘n Konstitusionele Hof daargestel met die mag om te verseker dat alle vertakkinge van die regering hou by die Oppergesag van die Reg en die bepalings van die Handves van Regte. Die mees belangrike was dat die nuwe Grondwet gelyke regte en gelyke status van alle Suid-Afrikaners, ongeag ras, geslag, taal of seksuele oriëntasie erken het.

Ons het ‘n ver pad gereis sedert 31 Mei 1910. Alhoewel ons steeds gekonfronteer word met vele ernstige uitdagings, het ons verhuis na ‘n stelsel wat inklusief en gebaseer op die oppergesag van die reg is. Nietemin, niks hiervan sou moontlik gewees het – en die geskiedenis van die afgelope honderd jaar sou dramaties anders gewees het – as dit nie was dat die 1908 National Convention ‘n ooreenkoms bereik het oor die vereniging van die vier kolonies en die groot verskeidenheid mense wat daarin gelewe het nie. Vir die beter en die slegter dae, 31 Mei 1910 was die geboortedatum van Suid-Afrika en moet as sulks gevier word.

Dave Steward, Executive Director, FW de Klerk Foundation

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