S. Africa proposes bill of rights Move is decried as boon for whites

February 03, 1993|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- The South African government proposed a comprehensive bill of rights yesterday, a move quickly denounced as an attempt to ensure protection for the white minority now that it faces the prospect of black majority rule.

Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee said in unveiling the proposal, "We trust that this document will make a meaningful contribution to the nation. We must create a human rights culture where people will respect the rights of their fellow citizens."

The proposal, he said, was designed to correct the current system, under which there are no rights guaranteed to South African citizens.

But critics described it as a late, strange and cynical attempt coming from whites who never bothered to draft a bill of rights until they faced the prospect of black rule.

"It's not only disingenuous, it's sinister," said Dullah Omar, a lawyer for the African National Congress. He said the proposal sought to protect the privileges accumulated by whites under decades of apartheid.

The government's proposal makes no mention of redressing actions under apartheid, such as the widespread confiscation of black-owned land.

It also would allow detention without trial to continue with some restrictions and would reimpose the death penalty, which has been suspended.

"The features are unacceptable even if a legitimate body were to consider it," said Mr. Omar, noting that the existing Parliament is segregated and excludes blacks.

The ANC proposed a bill of rights even before the formal democracy talks with the government began, but the ANC proposal essentially has been ignored.

ANC leaders say their document is based on international principles of human rights but also is committed to achieving "social and economic rights." They say their document also has stronger provisions against discrimination than the government's proposal does.

The new government proposal, called the Charter of Fundamental Rights, is a 37-point charter that would guarantee a wide range of freedoms and rights. The document is revolutionary for South Africa, where apartheid reigned for more than four decades and blacks faced legalized discrimination solely on the basis of race.

"In the past, human rights in this country have been infringed upon. We do not claim to be proud of such infringements," Mr. Coetsee said at a news conference. "But we do claim the right and privilege to change the situation positively if we can."

The proposal states: "All persons shall be equal before the law and entitled to equal protection by the law.

"No person shall be favoured or prejudiced solely by reason of race, color, language, sex, religion, ethnic origin, social class, birth, political or other convictions, or disabilities or other natural characteristics."

The charter would guarantee rights of citizenship and political rights, the same rights denied to blacks and their white political allies until three years ago, when President F. W. de Klerk began ambitious political reforms that set the nation on a course toward black rule.

The charter would protect the right to join a political party and to participate in political activities, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of worship.

It also would protect private ownership of property and stipulates that "every person shall have the right not to be subjected to taxes on property which will have a confiscatory effect or will make unreasonable inroads upon the enjoyment, use or value of such property."

If the government included such a right in a new constitution, it would tie the hands of future governments on the question of land ownership, which was based on race.

Throughout the years of apartheid, blacks were not permitted to own land in areas designated as white, which included 87 percent of the country's land. That provision of apartheid reserved most of the country's land for the white minority of 5 million while the black majority of 30 million was shut out.

One of the key issues for any new government will be the question of how to redress grievances concerning land, which was sometimes seized by the state from black communities and designated for whites.

The government's opponents think the white authorities are trying to preserve that disparity by getting it enshrined in a constitution their successors would be bound to uphold.

"In some ways, one has to question their sincerity and ask whether some of this is to preserve accumulated privileges," said Willie Hofmeyer, a regional ANC leader in Cape Town.

The government's plan is to have the segregated Parliament adopt the principles in its proposed charter and then present it to the multiparty forum holding negotiations on the country's political future.

Mr. Coetsee said government negotiators will push to have their bill of rights accepted now even though a democratic constitution is supposed to be drafted later by an assembly elected by all South Africans.

"We can't wait until there's an election. Then it would be held against us that we didn't level the playing field," he said.

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