Defining a country

Anthony Lewis

July 06, 1993|By Anthony Lewis

KEMPTON PARK, SOUTH AFRICA — WHEN President F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela were honored Sunday in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, the setting had special symbolic significance. For the American Constitution was written in that hall in 1787, and South Africa today is engaged in one of the most formidable exercises in constitution-making since then.

Like the delegates of 1787, the members of the negotiating forum here are creating a wholly new political system -- creating a country, really. And they are deliberately borrowing from the American model.

Phrases familiar to Americans leap from the draft. "The Constitution shall be the supreme law of the land," it says. "There shall be a separation of powers between the legislature, executive and judiciary, with appropriate checks and balances. . . ."

James Madison and his colleagues would surely be pleased to see their ideas taken up two centuries later half a world away. But of course there are enormous differences between what happened in the summer of 1787 and what is happening here.

Privacy of deliberation is one striking difference. The framers of the U.S. Constitution met in secret, and minutes of their discussions were not published until decades later. Sawdust was spread around Independence Hall to muffle the sound of horses, so the delegates could meet undisturbed.

The South African negotiating sessions are open to the press, and reporters buttonhole delegates in the corridors. Almost every day newspapers announce that there is a "crisis" or a "breakthrough."

The American framers were all white men of top property, and they met before there were defined political parties. The delegates here are a kaleidoscope of colors, languages, parties, regions, ideologies.

The variety of interests clashing, and all in public, make this a profoundly difficult negotiation -- as does, needless to say, South Africa's history of racial oppression. Indeed, the first attempt to create a new political system failed last year.

When the new talks started two months ago, they faced irreconcilable demands. For example, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party demanded that a final constitution be written by these unelected delegates, while the African National Congress wanted an elected constituent assembly to write the permanent constitution.

An ingenious device was used to get around such conflicts. A Technical Committee on Constitutional Issues was created. The members, non-politicians, were appointed by unanimous vote of the negotiators. The committee's experts have unanimously approved a series of mollifying recommendations.

Thus the committee proposed "constitutional principles" for a five-year transitional period. The elected assembly would adopt the final constitution, but it would have to work within fixed rules. And the committee made explicit what the framers in 1787 only implied: that the constitutional principles would be legally enforceable, in a new constitutional court.

There is broad agreement on a bill of rights, again with American-sounding protections for free speech, equal protection of the laws and the like. But care is being taken to leave room for affirmative action after the centuries of racism.

Chief Buthelezi may still try to obstruct an agreement that would let the transition to a new South Africa begin. But great momentum has been built up by the committee process, and the government and the African National Congress both now seem determined to seize the moment.

Roelf Meyer, the government's chief negotiator, remarked the other day that "negotiating in the public eye is difficult, but you need it to overcome public mistrust." The failed last negotiations, Mr. Meyer said, were "not sufficiently transparent" to work.

The conditions of 1787 may seem utterly different. But ingenious compromises were necessary there, too. Catherine Drinker Bowen called her account of the Philadelphia Convention "Miracle at Philadelphia." If a new South Africa is born here, as I think it will be, it will be as great a miracle.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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