Md. student brings ideas to constitution writers

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 26, 1995|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The wide-eyed enthusiasm that Paul Caiola brings to the job of constitution writing seems at odds with the American image of founding fathers gathering somberly to ponder the fate of a nation.

Mr. Caiola is a third-year University of Maryland law student from Silver Spring and now, indirectly, a constitution writer himself.

"What is so exciting about South Africa is that almost overnight it is going from one of the most backward countries in terms of human rights to one of the most progressive," Mr. Caiola says.

Specializing in children's rights and juvenile law, Mr. Caiola is on an internship sponsored by the law school and has landed in the middle of South Africa's constitution-writing process. He is assigned to Lawyers for Human Rights, one of the groups that sought to protect individual rights during the apartheid era and now one of the many organizations submitting proposals to the country's Constitutional Assembly.

Many people have assumed that the constitution was finished in 1993, paving the way for the elections in April 1994 that made Nelson Mandela the country's president.

But that was only an interim document, worked out in negotiations among the political parties and designed to govern the country only until 1999. The permanent version is being written by the Constitutional Assembly, consisting of all elected members of the Parliament and Senate.

At first, South Africans assumed that the interim constitution would undergo only minor changes. The Constitutional Assembly, headed by Cyril Ramaphosa, has approached its job differently, appointing committees to reconsider every aspect of the document.

The African National Congress is trying to give the permanent document a populist legitimacy by conducting an extensive advertising campaign involving every medium -- from radio and television to messages on screens at automated bank machines -- to urge individuals to submit their ideas, either in writing or at a series of public hearings being held across the country.

However, the final version must adhere to 27 principles already agreed upon by negotiators, principles that require the permanent constitution to guarantee democracy, individual rights, private property ownership and such.

And the ANC cannot totally dictate the final terms: its 62 percent majority in the Constitutional Assembly falls short of the two-thirds needed to adopt the new document.

The possibility of a popularly elected body rewriting a constitution used to scare such unabashedly liberal types as Mr. Caiola when school prayer proponents and abortion foes were pushing for a constitutional convention in the United States.

But he sees only possibilities, not pitfalls, in South Africa.

"There are a lot of things that are not included in the American Constitution," he says. "There are things like children's rights that had to be covered by case law later on. Here we have a chance to make sure they are in the constitution from the start."

Anne Skelton, the South African supervising his work, shares his enthusiasm. "You also have to remember that the interim constitution was written in a hurry under a lot of pressure," she says. "Now we have a chance to go back over it and correct any mistakes, which is sometimes just a matter of changing a word here or there."

Mr. Caiola refuses to doubt the wisdom of South Africa's constitutional course, even though a popularly elected body will be able to tamper with the document. "I think it is mainly progressive groups making submissions to the Constitutional Assembly," he says, confident that the final document will agree with his views.

After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, Mr. Caiola worked in the 1988 presidential campaign of Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, then spent three years in the Peace Corps in Malawi before joining Sen. Tom Harkin's bid for the Democratic nomination in 1992.

Mr. Caiola is one of six University of Maryland law school students to work as legal interns during this school year, and the 20th since the university's program began in 1989.

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