FW de Klerk. Picture: SUPPLIED
FW de Klerk. Picture: SUPPLIED

My family and many other SA families made huge sacrifices to achieve the constitution we have today.

However, SA’s first democratic constitution was not the constitution that was negotiated between 1990 and 1996. It was the 1853 Cape constitution. Why did SA need a second democratic constitution in 1993 if it had already enacted a democratic constitution 140 years earlier? The answer was the South Africa Act of 1909.

This law, agreed between the British government and the white governments of the four SA colonies, replaced the first nonracial constitution with the Union of SA and rule by a white oligarchy elected by “European men”. Most importantly, this agreement enjoyed the backing of the Chamber of Mines, which was then the backbone of the SA economy, and still is.

In terms of the 1853 democratic constitution, the electorate was not restricted by race, though there was a £25 property ownership requirement, which applied to all voters irrespective of race. Greed for instant wealth from diamonds and gold explains why the British were shamelessly willing to abandon the 1853 democratic constitution they had been party to creating.

The history of SA between 1910 and 1990 was therefore one of building a formidable obstacle course to ensure the first democratic constitution could not re-emerge. The low points were the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1960, and the arrest and sentencing of their leaders soon thereafter. Another was the killing of Steve Biko and other black leaders of his generation, as well as the banning of black consciousness-aligned social organisations in 1977.

Viewed through this lens, the February 2 1990 speech by then president FW de Klerk marked the beginning of the dismantling of this obstacle course, which was why to be taken seriously it had to begin with the unbanning of the ANC and PAC and the release of its most prominent prisoner, Nelson Mandela. Prior tinkering with the obstacle course by John Vorster and PW Botha was rightly seen as an effort to preserve the apartheid system and was therefore opposed by black South Africans.

De Klerk’s speech has been acknowledged as epoch-making in SA and the rest of the world, including the Nobel committee. But can we say today that the constitutional transformation it triggered was a victory for all South Africans?

Among the clear winners were the African nationalists of the ANC. Last October finance minister Tito Mboweni revealed that there are more than 29,000 politicians and public servants who today earn more than R1m a year, and the SA public service is the highest paid in the world. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), public service remuneration accounts for more than 14% of GDP. This is 3% higher than in developed countries and double the remuneration of public servants in similar middle-income countries.

Another outcome of the 1990s constitutional transformation was the entry of black managers and professionals into SA’s private and public sectors, and their numbers are still growing. What this tells us is that SA’s elite in the public and the private sectors has become racially integrated and, most importantly, that this integration process has not led to serious conflict within the elite. This is an important achievement; many of Africa’s conflicts, such as the Nigerian civil war of the 1960s and the conflicts in the Great Lakes region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), arose from unintegrated elites. This is why we can confidently say SA is politically stable.

On the other hand, SA’s social structure today tells us who has not benefited from our country’s constitutional transformation. Half of the economically active population is unemployed, constituting a permanent underclass. This means no-one knows what income this group earns, if any. Who is to blame for this dysfunctional economic system that generates poverty and unemployment? Is it 25 years of ANC democratic rule? Is it 46 years of National Party apartheid rule before 1994? Is it a consequence of the February 2 1990 speech?

The SA economy was recreated by the British colonial government during the last quarter of the 19th century to enable it and the colonial mining companies to exploit SA’s newly discovered mineral wealth. The system was further fine-tuned after the defeat of the Boer republics during the first decade of the 20th century, with the creation of the Union of SA.

Thereafter the British colonial government worked in close partnership with the SA Chamber of Mines to create a minerals extraction economy anchored by the migrant labour of African men, which steadily destroyed the viability of peasant agriculture. A large pool of a marginalised people was thus created, which continues to this day and comprises the largest group of South Africans who have not benefited meaningfully from the constitutional transformation of the 1990s.

In the many negotiations between the Afrikaner elite and the British, and between the Afrikaner elite and African nationalists, the one thing all parties agreed on was not to change the economic system created by the British in the 19th century. What they negotiated was how SA’s small elites, now black and white, could benefit most from the status quo.

The survival of a colonial economic system long after political independence is not unique to SA. Another former British colony, the US, gained its political independence in 1776, yet the slave labour-based cotton export economy founded by the British to feed its Industrial Revolution survived intact for another 90 years until the civil war, which lasted four years and left more than 660,000 Americans dead. This is surely not the route SA wants to follow.

What needs to be done to bring about a constitutional transformation that benefits all South Africans? I believe SA needs a new charter to achieve consolidated democracy and create a productive and inclusive economy:

  • Electoral reforms to introduce mixed constituency and proportional representation at national and provincial levels;
  • An overhaul and redesign of the education, health care, transport and electrical power supply systems;
  • A halving of the cost of public services, including those of traditional leaders, and the transformation of the public service into one that serves the people, rather than living off the people as at present;
  • A renegotiation of economic relations with the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa);
  • A revision of SA’s trade and investment relations with non-African partners;
  • Restructuring the SA economy to be more investment driven rather than consumption and finance driven, and a phasing out of BEE demands on foreign investors;
  • Devising a business development plan to grow employment and phase out exports of mineral ores, as well as promote investment in former homelands; and 
  • Rebuilding the SA army by, among other things, reintroducing national military service.

Epoch-making interventions and decisions such as De Klerk’s February 2 1990 speech have both intended and unintended consequences, some of which take decades to unfold.

• Mbeki, a political analyst, is deputy chairman of the SA Institute of International Affairs and a member of the council of the London based International Institute for Strategic Studies. This is an edited version of his presentation at an FW de Klerk Foundation panel discussion to mark the 30th anniversary of the unbanning of SA's liberation movements.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.