Establishing THE

After South Africa’s first democratic elections, the newly elected parliament would double as a Constitutional Assembly and would be responsible for writing the final constitution. The Constitutional Assembly was given just two years to complete this mammoth task. It was agreed that the new text had to comply with the Constitutional Principles entrenched in the first stage of negotiations and that the Constitutional Court would then decide if the text complied with the Principles. 

Thus, while the Interim Constitution was a politically negotiated product, the final Constitution was not. The final Constitution was produced through extensive public involvement facilitated by the first democratic parliament and led by Cyril Ramaphosa. Here, we look at the nitty-gritty of how the Constitutional Assembly got down to the business of building a solid foundation upon which to build a new country. We come to understand how many controversial issues kept the constitutional drafters battling until the very end.  We see that the final Constitution was the outcome of a complex and rich process.

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Some of our storytellers

The first democratic Parliament

On a sunny Monday, 9 May 1994, South Africa’s first democratic parliament met for its first sitting. The mood was joyous. After centuries of legalised white supremacy, the historic gathering of parliamentarians represented all political parties in the country, in accordance with the results of a non-racial election that had been declared ‘free and fair’. This new Parliament’s mandate was two-fold: to govern the new democracy and to draft a new Constitution in a
two-year time frame.

The government I have the honour to lead … is inspired by the single vision of creating a people-centred society … to the pursuit of the goals of freedom from want, freedom from hunger, freedom from deprivation, freedom from ignorance, freedom from suppression and freedom from fear.

President Nelson Mandela

First State Of The NAtion Address, 9 May 1994

It’s really a wonderful feeling to be sitting in the same chamber of Parliament that I have sat in since 1981 and to realise that the whole of South Africa is now represented here. It is a completely different place. There used to be a very stuffy sort of an atmosphere … Now the colourfulness of South Africa has come to the fore. Even though there are hitches and hiccups – we almost never start on time anymore – it’s a much better Parliament …

Piet Marais

Then National Party Member of The Constitutional Assembly


The 490 members of Parliament from seven different political parties, doubled up as the Constitutional Assembly (CA).  The CA’s job was to draft the final Constitution. The CA was formed by two parts of the National Parliament – the National Assembly of 400 people and the Senate of 90 people.

The political parties were represented in the CA as follows:

African National Congress

Leader : Nelson Mandela
CA Members: 312

National Party

Leader : FW De Klerk
CA Members: 99

Inkatha Freedom Party

Leader : Mangosuthu Buthelezi
CA Members: 48

Freedom Front

Leader : Constand Viljoen
CA Members: 14

Democratic Party

Leader : Tony Leon
CA Members: 10

Pan Africanist Congress

Leader : Clarence Makwetu
CA Members: 5

African Christian Democratic Party

Leader : Kenneth Meshoe
CA Member: 2

The writing of a new Constitution for a democratic South Africa will no doubt stand out in history as one of the most important and abiding tasks in the transition of our country … the final Constitution must be as reflective of the wishes of all our people, as it will be durable…

Cyril Ramaphosa

then Chair of the Constitutional Assembly

I am convinced that the foundation for nation building was established during the period of the Constitutional Assembly. The CA became a vibrant forum for dialogue made up of people from all walks of life – many of whom never having engaged in serious matters such as constitutional principles and the socio-economic and multi-cultural challenges of our country.


then ANC member of the Constitutional Assembly


The Constitutional Assembly met for the first time on 24 May 1994. They had just two years to finish the historic job of drawing up the final Constitution.
The Interim Constitution specified that the final text of the Constitution had to be passed by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly within two years of its first sitting, which was on 8 May 1994. Therefore, 8 May 1996 was D-Day.
If the Constitution was not completed in the two-year time frame, then a referendum would be held to break any deadlocks.
On 8 May 1996, Parliament adopted the Constitution by an 87% majority. There was elation all round.
On 10 December 1996, President Mandela signed the Constitution into law. It was published in the Government Gazette eight days later.
The Constitution came into effect on 4 February 1997.

There had never been a process like this anywhere. When we started everybody said it was impossible to do it within two years.

Hassen Ebrahim

Then Executive Director of the Constitutional Assembly

At the first sitting, Mandela told the 490 members of the CA, who had the eyes of the world upon them: “Let us all get down to work!” Mandela then withdrew from the proceedings of the CA. He took no part in its meetings. As president of the country, his job was to sit back now, respect the separation of powers and leave it for the CA to draft the Constitution. He took no part in the deliberations. This was not Mandela’s constitution.

While all the business of Parliament continued normally in the National Assembly under the control of speaker, Frene Ginwala, passing new legislation in both houses, each of the political parties appointed individual MPs to the various committees of the CA according to their qualifications and experience. They became the constitutional drafters. During the first three months, however, members of the CA were engaged in the establishment of the first democratic Parliament and little work was accomplished in the CA itself.

Members of the CA are also elected political representatives responsible for the establishment of the democratic parliament, the government of national unity, a demanding legislative programme, attending to constituencies and, not least, preparations for the local government elections. This meant that structures of the CA were only able to operate on one day of the week during those periods when parliament was in session.

Constitutional Assembly Annual Report

May 1994 – May 1995

The constitution-making process should not be seen in isolation from the broader context. South Africa is in the midst of a reconstruction process. The work of the Constitutional Assembly is part of the broader reconstruction and democratisation process in our country.

Cyril Ramaphosa

Then Chair of the Constitutional Assembly

What Were the 34 Constitutional Principles?

Education material generated by the Education Department of the Constitutional Assembly. National Archives and Records Service of South Africa

The Constitution had to be negotiated within the framework of the 34 Constitutional Principles, negotiated at the Multi Party Negotiating Forum and enshrined in the Interim Constitution of 1993. The Principles dealt with a vast range of issues from having an entrenched, universally recognised Bill of Rights to the electoral system, the role of traditional leaders and the relationship between different spheres of government. The newly formed Constitutional Court was given the unprecedented authority to determine whether the Constitutional Assembly had complied with the 34 Principles in drafting the final Constitution. If the Court decided that they did not comply, it could refer the text back to the CA for revision. The Principles were a summary of the spirit of the still-to-be-born new Constitution and emphasised broad consensus positions that encouraged unity and nation building. None of Principles dealt directly with property rights, or the rights of employers to lock-out, which were to become sticking points later on in the CA process. The 34 Principles were binding. They couldn’t be scrapped or changed by the CA, not even by a two-thirds majority. The 34 Principles were an annexure in the Interim Constitution (Schedule 4) which became law on 27 April 1994.

Initially, there were 33 Principles agreed to. The 34th Principle dealing with the right to self-determination by particular communities was added later.

How was the Constitutional Assembly Structured?

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This was the highest decision-maker in the entire process. It received reports from the Constitutional Committee. These were then debated and adopted as the constitutional text.








Observation platform: The Constitutional Assembly’s administrative team, photographed in a parliamentary box reserved for them during a plenary session of the Assembly, quickly earned the admiration of the negotiators for their hard work and can-do attitude. Subash Jeram / Constitutional Assembly

The troika that ran the process: Executive director Hassen Ebrahim and his deputies Marion Sparg and Louisa Zondo. Subash Jeram / Constitutional Assembly

Theme committees

The Management and Constitutional Committees were supported by six individually themed parliamentary committees. Each of them comprised 30 members drawn from all political parties in proportion to their representation in Parliament. The Theme Committees met weekly and were presided over by three Chairpersons on a rotational basis. The Committees began their work in September 1994. 

The main function of the Theme Committees was to ensure the inclusive nature of the constitution-making process by receiving views and ideas, calling for submissions from political parties, civil society and the broader public. The committees then processed these in the form of reports on sections of
the new Constitution.

It will be their task to isolate these views, to find common ground where that is possible and to process key issues.

Pravin Gordhan

then ANC member of the Constitutional Assembly

The first substantive reports from the Theme Committees were tabled before the Constitutional Committee in February 1995. Each Theme Committee was supported and advised by a Technical Committee made up of constitutional lawyers and other experts – who supported and advised the politicians. They assisted in the drafting of the Theme Committee reports that went to the Constitutional Committee.


Character of the Democratic State


Structure of Government


Relationship between levels of Government


Fundamental Rights


Fundamental Rights


Judiciary and Legal Systems


Specialised Structure of Government


Fundamental Rights

Who were the constitutional drafters?

The drafters of the Constitution came from opposing political parties and shared different visions of the end result. But from the outset, they were united by a strong will to get the job done. They understood that the Interim Constitution was a reference document and that the 34 Constitutional Principles enshrined in it were ‘the fundamental guidelines, the prescribed boundaries’ within which they had to fulfill their drafting function. Their ultimate mandate, however, was to write a constitution ‘from scratch’ and to consult with the people of the country in so doing. The new text had to be both ‘legitimate and enduring’ – the result of a process deemed credible and accepted by all.

Bulelani Ngcuka, Enver Surty, Senator M. Bhabha. Subash Jeram / Constitutional Assembly

Constand Viljoen speaks to his team. Subash Jeram / Constitutional Assembly

Led by the newly elected Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly, Cyril Ramaphosa, and his deputy, Leon Wessels, they set out on their daunting mission with a great spirit of co-operation.

I am a great optimist. We will meet the deadline.

Cyril Ramaphosa

There is tough political bargaining ahead, but I hope intellectual balance, good humour and farsightedness will be shown.

Cyril Ramaphosa

Ramaphosa set the tone for the next 24 months with his first words after receiving a standing ovation in Parliament.

They call me the Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly. I make tea for everyone. I clean up the room when they’ve messed it up after meetings, so I do a very menial job in this place.

Cyril Ramaphosa

When asked by television interviewers about his role in the
Constitutional Assembly

At Kempton Park … we had to focus on breaking the political deadlock that had polarised the country. We had to deal with the question of the transition from one order to another. That was essentially a political settlement we were crafting. Here, we will not be dealing with transitional matters. We are dealing with a constitution that will stand the test of time and take us into the 21st century.


Then Deputy Chair of the Constitutional Assembly

Constitution drafters reflect:

 I am convinced that it was during constitutional negotiations that we learnt to work together, to be tolerant and less angry, to seek consensus and to put South Africa first. Today we can talk of shared values, affirming that we are a constitutional state.


then ANC member of the Constitutional Assembly

It was through dialogue that we as South Africans succeeded within two years to create our Constitution. We learnt that we had to listen to different viewpoints and to be politically tolerant. We did not have to agree on everything, but we had to learn to compromise by pushing our country and its people first.

Mavivi Myakayaka-Manzini

then ANC member of the Constitutional Assembly

It was all hands on deck during the difficult and often contentious negotiations that took place in the Old Assembly Chamber. In the process, I gained valuable experience in negotiating … And that, in the thorny months that followed, was what we had to do: talk to the enemy, eat with the enemy and drink with the enemy, until suddenly they were not the enemy any longer, but real people with concerns and positions that we came to understand.

Willie Hofmeyr

then ANC member of the Constitutional Assembly

Achieving agreement on the basics of the constitution

The extraordinary number of hours being put in by the different Theme Committees was producing large areas of agreement amongst the drafters and resulting in the spinal column of what is today South Africa’s Constitution. Agreement was reached in four major respects: values, structures of government, equality and redressing imbalances created by apartheid and unity in diversity.



Audio Visual


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