some landmark cases

After the Constitutional Court certified the text of the Constitution, President Nelson Mandela signed the final Constitution into law. The text came into effect in February 1997. Since then, the Constitution has been a powerful tool for communities to fight for human rights and the Constitutional Court has handed down many important judgments. 

These landmark cases demonstrate how ordinary South Africans have drawn on the Constitution and how the cases have not only impacted on the lives of the applicants, but also on the lives of thousands of South Africans. They have enhanced the quality of our democracy. 

Click on each case to understand the issue at stake, the judgment of the Constitutional Court, and the impact that the Court’s decision had on our society.

A matter of life and death

S v Makwanyane & Another (1995)

Is the death penalty compatible with the right to life clause in the Constitution?

Is it appropriate for the Constitutional Court to take a decision on the abolition of the death penalty, or is it a matter for Parliament to decide?

Journalists visiting the gallows after the death penalty was declared unconstitutional. Ruvan Boshoff / Sunday Times

Executive Council of the Western Cape Legislature and Others vs President of the Republic of South Africa and Others (1995)

Does the President have the right to both make and execute laws?

Can the Constitutional Court find the President’s law-making powers – conferred on him by Parliament – to be unconstitutional?

President Nelson Mandela speaking in Parliament. The National Council of Province Perspectives on the First 10 Years booklet

The First Socio-Economic Rights Case

Soobramoney v Minister of Health (1997)

In a constitutional democracy where the right to access healthcare is protected, can a hospital refuse a seriously ill patient treatment because of a lack of resources?

Waiting room in a South African government hospital. Gallo Images

Decriminalising Love

National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality v Minister of Justice (1998)

In a constitutional democracy, can sex between two consenting men be criminalised?

The Johannesburg Gay Pride is the biggest gay and lesbian festival in South Africa, as well as the oldest Gay Pride in Africa. Johann Hattingh, SAPA

Everybody Counts

August and Another v Electoral Commission (1999)

Do prisoners have the right to vote under the new Constitution?

Prisoners were given the opportunity to vote in the 2004 elections. Avusa / The Bigger Picture / Reuters

Dying for a House

The Government of the Republic of South Africa v Grootboom (2000)

What is the state’s obligation to care for the homeless?

Irene Grootboom posing on a sign with her name. Ambrose Peters/Sunday Times

A Duty to Protect Women

Carmichele v Minister of Safety and Security and Minister of Justice (2001)

What is the state’s duty in protecting the bodily integrity, dignity, and freedom of women?

Alix Carmichele. Sandile Ndlovu / Gallo Images

Speaking Truth to Power

Minister of Health and Others v Treatment Action Campaign and Others (2002)

What is the role of the Constitutional Court in saving babies from contracting HIV/AIDS?

Can the Constitutional Court order the government to change its policy, especially when millions of lives are at stake?

Women protesting against the limited access to Nevirapine. The Bigger Picture / Reuters

Sex Work and the Bill of Rights

S v Jordan and Others (2002)

Should sex work be legal in a constitutional democracy?

Human Rights Watch cover. Rebecca Hendin, Human Rights Watch 2019

Ubuntu and Social Grants

Khosa and Others v Minister of Social Development (2004)

Are non-citizens entitled to social grants issued by the government?

Thousands wait in line outside the social services office in Cape Town to register for grants. EPA/Nic Bothma

Equality and Customary Law

Bhe and Others v Khayelitsha Magistrate and Others (2004)

Are African customary laws related to inheritance inconsistent with the constitutional guarantee of equality?

Prince Siganeko Dalindyebo of the Tembu and AmaQwathi royal spokesman Prince Dabulingwe Ndzima inspecting some of the cattle paid for ilobola. Lulamile Feni / Sowetan

Marriage Equality

Minister of Home Affairs and Another v Fourie and Another (2005)

Do same-sex couples have the constitutional right to get married?

The first gay marriage in South Africa. Tony Halls (left) and Vernon Gibbs (right) exchange rings. Ambrose Peters/AP

The people’s opinion matters

Doctors for Life International v Speaker of the National Assembly and Others (2006)

Can Parliament make laws without consulting the public? Or can the Constitutional Court interfere in parliamentary processes?

Young black farmers raise their hands to speak on the first day of Limpopo’s hearings into whether section 25 of the Constitution should be amended. Greg Nicolson

Resistance from the grass root

Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement SA v Premier of KwaZulu-Natal and Others (2009)

Does the Slums Act violate the Constitution and make an already vulnerable group more vulnerable?

The Landless People’s Movement in solidarity with Abahlali baseMjondolo at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, 2009. Marie Huchzermeyer

The importance of diversity in schools

MEC for Education: KwaZulu-Natal and Others v Pillay (2007)

What is the place of religious and cultural expression in public schools?

Sunali Pillay. The Independent on Saturday

Victims must have a say in pardons

Albutt v Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and Others (2010)

Can the President pardon perpetrators of apartheid crime without hearing the victims of such crime?

Members of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including Dr Alex Boraine (second from left), deputy chair; Archbishop Desmond Tutu (centre), chair; and Rev. Bongani Finca (right), commissioner, at the commission’s first hearing, April 1996, East London, South Africa. Benny Gool, Oryx Media/Desmond Tutu Peace Centre

Justice for mineworkers

Mankayi v AngloGold Ashanti (2011)

In a constitutional democracy, what is rightful compensation for mineworkers who contract terminal illnesses while working underground?

Lesotho mineworkers listen attentively to a Mineworkers Development Association briefing, 2012. The South African Medical Journal

The constitution and the fight against corruption

Glenister v President of the Republic of South Africa (2011)

Was the disbandment of the Scorpions, a special unit set up to tackle crime and corruption, and its replacement with the Hawks, constitutional?

Official seal of the Directorate of Special Operations.

The Court ruling on one of its own – the Chief Justice

Justice Alliance of South Africa v President of the Republic of South Africa and Others (2011)

Can the President extend the term of the Chief Justice and not the other justices?

Last sitting for, then outgoing, Constitutional Court Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo who is pictured here sharing a moment with Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke after handing down his last judgment before his retirement in 2011. Bongiwe Mchunu

Money and politics

My Vote Counts NPC v Speaker of the National Assembly and Others (2018)

Does the Constitution require political parties to disclose the sources of their private funding?

South African Rand. EWN

Nkandla – The President Breaks His Oath Of Office

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) v Speaker of the National Assembly and Others and Democratic Alliance v Speaker of the National Assembly and Others (2016)

Is the President obligated to comply with the findings of the Public Protector, an office established by Chapter Nine of the Constitution? Can the Court remove a sitting President?

President Zuma’s homestead in Nkandla. Thembinkosi Dwayisa

David v Goliath

Makate v Vodacom (Pty) Ltd (2016)

How does the Constitution protect individuals against the abuse of corporate power?

Kenneth Nkosana Makate and his wife, Rebecca, posing in the foyer of the Constitutional Court. Nomahlubi Jordaan

Government ineptitude impacts the most vulnerable

Black Sash Trust v Minister of Social Development and Others (2017)

Should the Constitutional Court validate an unlawful contract to ensure that 17 million people receive their social grants?

Protesters demonstrating against the social grants controversy. Barbara Maregele

A Farm Worker’s Victory

Yolanda Daniels v Theo Scribante and Another (2017)

How does the Constitution protect the living conditions and dignity of farm workers and dwellers who were historically marginalised?

Dilapidated farm workers’ houses, 2007. Stellenbosch Heritage

Legalising Cannabis

Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development and Others v Prince (2018)

Do individuals have the right to smoke marijuana in the privacy of their homes?

Garreth Prince standing outside the Constitutional Court of South Africa, 2018. Renata Larroyd / M&G


Audio Visual

President Mandela gives his State of the Nation address in Parliament. Mandela ends his address with the words, “Let us all get down to work”.

“We must construct that people-centred society of freedom in such a manner that it guarantees the political and the human rights of all our citizens.”– President Mandela, extract from State of the Nation Address, 24 May 1994

President Nelson Mandela announces his cabinet. It includes members of the African National Congress, National Party and Inkatha Freedom Party.

“There was pride in serving in the first democratic government in South Africa, and then the additional pride of serving under the iconic leadership of Nelson Mandela … [He] represented the hopes of not just our country, but of oppressed, marginalised and the poor in the world.”– Jay Naidoo, then Minister of RDP housing
“We place our vision of a new constitutional order for South Africa on the table not as conquerors, prescribing to the conquered. We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.”– President Nelson Mandela, 10 May 1994