The challenges of sharing the little-known history of the South African constitution


The South African Constitution is one of the most famous constitutions in the world as it was drafted by elected parliamentarians and the people through one of the most ambitious public consultation programs in history. The Constitution came after decades and decades of a sustained global struggle that led to the release of one of the world’s most famous political prisoners, Nelson Mandela, who was instrumental in the peaceful struggle against the power of the apartheid government and in the prevention of full-scale civil war. that the world had expected.

Continuing the tradition of public engagement that defined the constitution-making process, The Constitution Hill Trust (CHT), founded in 2006 to defend constitutionalism in South Africa, has developed a virtual exhibit on constitution-making. South African Constitution titled Our Struggle, Our Freedom, Notre Constitution which was launched on September 24, 2020. It was urgent to make this story available as we cannot make sense of present day South Africa and its challenges without understand the foundations on which our constitutional democracy is built.

There were three challenges that we had to consider in creating this project. The first is the growing fragility of democracies around the world. The second challenge is the growing number of accusations that our Constitution is a “sold” document or that it has failed to deliver its transformative potential. These contextual challenges are further compounded by a third, namely that the remarkable process of drafting our Constitution and the significance of the document are little known in South Africa and abroad.

On a personal level, understanding this deeply inspiring story was a unique opportunity to take a step back from a story that one of us was too young to live and that another had experienced but had not fully addressed. The difficult times and the immense will of sworn enemies to overcome their hatred gives us courage to face the difficulties of our own lives. It’s inspiring precisely because it’s not the story of a triumphant end. It is a story of collective struggle, of courage, of returning to the brink of disaster, and above all, it provides us with a model to face our internal struggles. Our founding story reminds South Africans how accustomed we are to turning despair into hope.

Few are aware of the brutality of the negotiations that ended apartheid, the fierce debates that shaped specific paragraphs of the Constitution, and the behind-the-scenes challenges that were overcome to enable a transition from a tyrannical regime. to a constitutional democracy. Our exhibit tells these stories by drawing on archival documents about the process; seeking multiple voices of people involved from different political parties; and creating multimedia resources that convey the process in a highly accessible manner.

It is a story of collective struggle, of courage, of returning to the brink of disaster, and above all, it provides us with a model to face our internal struggles.

There was something transformative about uncovering the details of the story and exploring pressing issues during the negotiations for a free South Africa: Should we have three rotating presidents representing different ethnic groups and ruling by consensus? How could we avoid all-out war when right-wing armed white extremists joined political forces with the homeland’s rulers in a common threat to derail the first democratic elections of 1994?

What is amazing about this story is how little is known about the Constitution’s deep African roots. In 1923, the ANC produced its first Bill of Rights, a document that is the precursor to our much lauded Constitutional Bill of Rights. In 1943, the ANC developed these rights in its document on African claims which was followed by the Freedom Charter in 1955. Many South Africans are unaware of our long contribution to the global human rights movement. . The accessibility of this story will do much to engender the Constitution in our lives as an African document.

Unfortunately, the invisibility of women as actors in narratives of struggles for democracy has created a limited and patriarchal sense of history. Our virtual exhibition deliberately corrects the exclusion of women. We uncover the stories of little-known female leaders across all races such as Princess Emma, ​​Nokutela Dube, Josie Palmer Mpama, Ray Alexander Simons, and Francis Goitsemang Baard. Women in our history of the liberation struggle are often described as the “wives or mothers” of their male counterparts rather than as full leaders. Apartheid has distorted and excluded the stories of the majority in South Africa from our greatest historical narrative. The act of centering women in our history – leaders with power of action both in local communities and on the world stage – is an important act in claiming an untold story. We hope it will help reposition women in our society where misogyny is still rife.

The process of building the virtual exhibit included diverse voices and contributors with a multitude of different skills ranging from a former Constitutional Court judge to legal experts and historians, graphic design and development specialists. Web. The team visited museums and archives around the world to soak up best practices and create an engaging experience for visitors. We have forged creative relationships with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as Local Projects, a New York-based museum design company. Importantly, we have partnered with local organizations in South Africa to ensure that we are working with the same unifying spirit that defined the constitution-making process.

Our work took on new dimensions after extensive visits to the National Archives and Archives of South Africa (NARSSA) in Pretoria. With a group of political science students, who had never visited an archive before, we rummaged through the hundreds of dusty boxes containing valuable material. The documents revealed the mentalities behind the respective negotiating positions during the constitutional negotiations. The students came away with the immense power of archives and their important role in telling history – our history. We have now completed the process of digitizing more than 220,000 documents that constitute the founding collections of our democracy. These digital files are currently being processed and will soon be available on the virtual exhibition. Accessibility to these archives will allow students, researchers and the general public to easily use this rich resource to inform their work, further amplifying this seminal story.

Through this virtual exhibit, we hope our audience will realize that we all have a huge obligation as citizens to add our voices to this story to ensure a more nuanced and representative story and, ultimately, to ensure a grounded future. on common ground.

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