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South Africa's Post-Apartheid Constitution Marks 10th Anniversary


South Africa is marking the 10th anniversary (Dec. 10) of the signing of its constitution that formalized the demise of apartheid and the beginning of democratic rule. The charter has been described as one of the most progressive in the world, but it has also generated some controversies. VOA's Southern Africa Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from Johannesburg.

Ten years after South Africa's new constitution was signed into law by then-president Nelson Mandela, most people say they support it, saying it is a durable charter that protects individual freedoms, minority rights and multi-party democracy.

The director of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, Paul Graham, says the constitution was heavily influenced by the struggle against the inequalities of apartheid.

"It reflected the debates that had been happening around what type of society we wanted to have right through the late '80s and early '90s during the last stages of the struggle against apartheid," Graham says.

Graham says the drafters also held extensive consultations with the public and researched constitutions of other nations.

An analyst at the Center for Applied Legal Studies, Beth Goldblatt, says as a result, the South African constitution guarantees not only political liberties and individual freedoms, but also social and economic rights.

"There is a right to housing," she says. "There is a right to health care. There is a right to social security and there are many children's' rights. So there are a range of rights that the government is required to address."

But some of the provisions of the constitution were so protective of individual rights that they caused controversy.

For example, changes were made to the criminal code after it was found to allow dangerous criminals to walk free on bail before a case could be brought against them.

And a provision that provided rights and protection to sex workers was weakened because of public protests that it legalized prostitution.

Graham says much of the criticism came from people who were used to the old system. They felt the new constitution was soft on criminals and not supportive enough of their victims.

But he does not think that was the fault of the constitution.

"In fact, in every case that has gone before the Constitutional Court its clear that its not the constitution but our ability to implement it," Graham says.

In addition, a provision in the constitution guaranteeing equal rights to gays and lesbians obliged the government to pass a civil union law this month that provides the same guarantees to same-sex couples as to married heterosexual couples.

The new law was loudly opposed by religious groups and traditional leaders. Gay and lesbian groups also protested that the original law was retained and still excludes same-sex couples from marriage.

Goldblatt, of the Center for Applied Legal Studies, notes that the constitution also guarantees social and economic rights. Yet, she says, the government does not provide social security or financial support to the poor or unemployed if they are able-bodied adults.

"It is the idea that social security which is enshrined as a right in the bill of rights be extended to all South Africans who need it," she says.

She recommends providing a basic income grant to all South Africans living below the poverty line.

Analysts say a number of constitutional issues remain to be addressed.

Graham notes that the right to work is not in the new constitution. And in a country with 11 official languages, certain rights concerning language and schooling need to be addressed.

Finally, he notes that the country's president is currently elected by parliament rather than by direct popular vote.

But he says these deficiencies can be easily addressed by changing the law or administrative procedures. He says that one of the advantages of the South African constitution is that it is focused on process.

"It does not give answers to all our problems. It suggests procedures for managing them," Graham says.

And he concludes that as a result the constitution, which emerged from decades of conflict and suffering, stands a good chance of enduring over the long term.

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