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Finding the Founding Fathers

Guest Commentary

By Nicholas T. Antoun

For many Americans the Constitution is a symbol of their country, and it is thus surprising that so little of their attention has focused on South Africa's attempt to replace the lingering fragments of apartheid with a new constitution.

A popular historian of the United States, John Fiske, coined the phrase the "Critical Period" to describe the era of political and economic turbulence that characterized the individual states between the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. And while historians continue to debate just how critical it was for Americans to supplant the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution, there can be no doubt that South Africa, a country struggling to write a new constitution, now faces its own critical period.

In some ways the situation facing South Africans is much more urgent than what Americans faced in the 1780's, for maintaining the status quo is not an option for them. In post-Revolutionary America, many people were satisfied with the loose federal system of the Articles of Confederation, and the great source of political tension was the struggle between those who sought to maintain the Articles and those who hoped to supplant them with a more centralized system.

In South Africa such tension does not exist because all the major groups--the African National Congress (ANC), the National Party (NP), the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP)--have denounced apartheid, the old regime based on the separation of racial groups. the only possible direction then is forward, and the only viable means for going forward is negotiation. Despite these realities, however, negotiations have stalled with the ANC's withdrawal from the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa).

On the face of it, negotiations have broken down over the issue of which political body is to draft the new constitution. The NP, the party of the majority of whites, and the IFP, the Zulu's party, insist that the constitution should be written at Codesa, where each of the three major organizations has an equal say.

But the ANC rejects the scenario, believing that a general election on a one man-one vote basis should first be held and that the resulting legislature should then create the constitution. Since the ANC represents over half the population, this last method would give the organization a dominant influence in determining the powers and the structure of the new government.

Exaserbating the disagreement over the constitution is the majority's insistence on ruling and the minorities' fear of the consequences of that rule. The NP and the IFP hesitate to say it openly, but both parties have a deep mistrust of the ANC and suspect that a constitution shaped by ANC ideals would clear the way for the nationalization of major industries. And their rule might even permit redistribution of personal and group property from whites and Zulus to ANC supporters.

The ANC, conversely, believes that a constitution written at Codesa, with each of the three parties having an equal say, would include such extreme protections of minority rights that the incoming elected government would be shackled, unable to bring about real change. To the outside observer, the solution plainly lies in a bill of individual rights approved by all parties and enforced by an independent national judiciary, elected, perhaps, by the three groups equally. With a bill of rights in place, an ANC written constitution would not loom so ominous to whites and Zulus.

But this is to get ahead of things, for the immediate task facing South Africans is to reestablish some trust between the parties and to convince the ANC to rejoin negotiations. A United Nations delegation headed by Cyrus Vance came to South Africa in early August with an eye to jump-start talks on the constitution.

The delegation made two observations/suggestions: First it singled out violence as the primary force eating away at the trust between the parties and suggested a thorough investigation of the activities of all security and paramilitary organizations in the country. Second it encouraged South Africans to rely on the already established institutions of investigation and negotiation, such as those at Codesa and the Goldstone Commission--an independent body of investigation headed by Chief Justice Richard Goldstone.

While the Vance delegation was certainly right in singling out violence as the destabilizing force in South African politics, its suggestions for investigating the killing as well as those for restarting the talks on the constitution reveal a failure to grasp the ANC's perspective. Simply, the ANC views the existing institutions of negotiation as extensions of the apartheid regime that oppressed its supporters for so long.

It is not willing to entrust such--in its view--tainted institutions as the Goldstone Commission and Codesa with uncovering the truth about the violence or with reaching a constitutional dispensation. The Vance delegation asks the ANC to take a leap of faith back into the Codesa talks, while past experience leads the organizations to mistrust and doubt.

Yet if South Africa is to weather its critical period, this leap of faith, and others like it, must be taken, and the UN can do no more to bring about such a result. Each of the three parties, and especially the ANC and the NP, remain very sensitive to the world's opinion, for whites cherish the sense of inclusion in the world community that reform has brought them. And they loathe the thought of being outcasts again while the ANC derives moral and financial support from a world that views the organizations as the voice of oppressed Blacks.

If the UN desired, this sensitivity to world opinion could be translated into leverage to break the impasses in the negotiations. But it would require a longer-term commitment than another Vance-like sweep through the country; rather an arbitrator with the full backing of the UN, as well as the approval of the three major parties in South Africa, would have to be sent over to husband the negotiation process to successful conclusion, a conclusion resulting in a new constitution. For the arbitrator to be successful in overcoming disagreement, however, the UN would have to make clear from the beginning that any party withdrawing from negotiations would lose support of the world organization.

There was no UN, of course, to help Americans sort out their disagreements in the summer of 1787, and they produced a workable plan of government. In South Africa, though, the groups trying to write a constitution have never done anything cooperatively, let alone fought a successful war for independence. History for them is a negative force to be overcome if a situation already critical is not to become one that proves fatal for multi-racial democracy in South Africa.

Nicholas T. Antoun is a graduate student in history. He has traveled extensively in South Africa, most recently in August.

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