The People
Have their say

The 1994 elections gave the newly democratic parliament two mandates. The first was to govern a democratic South Africa. The second was to draft a new Constitution. The ANC were convinced, however, that a strictly legal and technical drafting process was not an adequate approach to the latter task. If the final Constitution was to enjoy any legitimacy, it had to have the support of both those inside of the CA as well as those on the outside of it. In January 1995, ANC MP Collins Chabane made a statement at the plenary session of the CA which set the tone for the process that was about to unfold:

Notwithstanding the fact that we are elected representatives and we have the mandate to write the Constitution, we must still consult from Cape Town to Limpopo.

Collins Chabane


Young Collins Chabane (who at the age of 17 had gone into exile and joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and only returned to SA after 1990) … sets the target for us to draft the Constitution in a way in which it has never been done anywhere in the world. So, there is no best practice for us to follow, there are no case studies, there are just wonderful political statements as to how we should go about adopting this new Constitution.


Then Executive Director of the Constitutional Assembly

Cyril Ramaphosa and Leon Wessels with senior CA administrators and the community liaison department’s provincial coordinators for the outreach programme in rural areas. Subash Jeram / Constitutional Assembly

Across the political spectrum, members of the Constitutional Assembly concurred that unlike the process that led to the writing of the Interim Constitution, the drafting of the final Constitution had to be participatory if it was to be credible. The Constitutional Assembly’s first Annual Report in May 1995 explained the thinking behind the launch of a campaign:

“By empowering civil society to participate in the constitution-making process, the Constitutional Assembly will be able to add a new dimension to the development of democracy in South Africa. This will be the key component of the strategy to make the constitution-making process a people-driven process.”

Politicians echoed the importance of people in every setting across South Africa becoming involved in the constitution-making exercise:​

We must put our vision to the country directly … because in the end the drafting of the Constitution must not be the preserve of the 490 members of this Assembly. It must be a Constitution that they feel they own, a Constitution that they know and feel belongs to them.

Cyril Ramaphosa

THEN Chair of the Constitutional Assembly

Involving all South Africans in this fairly abstract task of constitution making was a difficult challenge. Many South Africans lived in the rural areas without access to media and many more were illiterate.

Essentially the task that we had was to ensure that we had a Constitution drafted by more than 40 million people.

Hassen Ebrahim

then Executive Director of the Constitutional Assembly

How was this task to be accomplished?

When, in January 1995, Hassen Ebrahim contemplated what had to be done during the year, he felt his blood quickening:

There was no case study, no history in the world where they had undertaken a constitution making process as was required of us. We had a team that had just come together; we had very little budget; much of the country was still plagued by no-go areas we could not visit; we had a population which had no history of constitution-making. The odds were heavily stacked against us.

Hassen Ebrahim

then Executive Director of the Constitutional Assembly

What was the multi-media campaign?

To support the campaign for South Africans to have their say, the Constitutional Assembly team worked with the South African Communication Service to create a large media presence. The objectives of the Constitutional Assembly media strategy were to inform, educate, stimulate public interest and create a forum for public participation. In the first phase, the objective was to ensure that the public knew about the deadline for written submissions to the Constitutional Assembly. In the second phase, a seven-week multi-media campaign was designed to focus on various socio-economic and political issues. These issues were used to highlight the importance and meaning of the new Constitution for South Africans.

The team that handled the multi-media campaign, Enoch Sithole, with, from left, Leonora de Souza, Tango Lamani, Pat Govender and Sibongiseni Hintsho. Reaching 75% of the South African population, the campaign has been rated one of the most successful government information efforts. Subash Jeram / Constitutional Assembly

One of the most important messages of the CA media campaign is to let people know that an important process is unfolding which affects their lives and those of future generations, and that every South African has a unique opportunity to take part in the drafting of a new constitution.

Constitutional Assembly Annual Report

May 1994 – May 1995

Radio was identified as a particularly effective medium to reach the people in both rural and urban areas.

Radio interview for the Constitutional Assembly radio programme. Subash Jeram / Constitutional Assembly

 A weekly television talk-show, called Constitutional Talk, was also commissioned. This consisted of a panel of representatives of political parties in the CA debating the various issues as they arose in the Theme Committees. The programmes dealt with subjects like human rights, provincial and national government, separation of powers and the seat of government.

Television interview with Cyril Ramaphosa and Leon Wessels. Subash Jeram / Constitutional Assembly

General advertisements on the constitution-making process, such as these here, were run in national, regional and local newspapers and on outdoor billboards. 

Posters from the Constitutional Assembly media campaign. Constitutional Assembly

In every official language and mounted through the length and breadth of South Africa, posters proclaimed the birth of the new constitution: “One law for one nation.”

In every official language and mounted through the length and breadth of South Africa, posters proclaimed the birth of the new constitution: “One law for one nation.”

In every official language and mounted through the length and breadth of South Africa, posters proclaimed the birth of the new constitution: “One law for one nation.”

In every official language and mounted through the length and breadth of South Africa, posters proclaimed the birth of the new constitution: “One law for one nation.”

The Constitutional Assembly launched an official newsletter, Constitutional Talk, to provide information to members of the public in a detailed and educative manner. This eight-page publication was produced fortnightly and distributed to 160 000 people. Ten thousand copies were distributed nationally through taxi ranks and another sixty thousand were sent to subscribers. Comic strips were produced for Constitutional Talk on a fortnightly basis, explaining various complex issues in an accessible and user-friendly manner.

A copy of the Constitution Talk.

A Telkom Constitutional Talk-Line – with the number (011) 329-8000 – was launched. It received over 10 000 calls from the public. The service was available in a choice of five languages – English, Afrikaans, IsiXhosa, Setswana and Sesotho. Callers could receive information or leave messages on the line. This is what some of our callers have been saying:

I am concerned about this question of the death penalty. My proposal is that if someone kills somebody, they must not be hanged, but their hands must be chopped off.

Nelson Marindi 


I wish to support provincial autonomy, free from central government interference, based on the United States model, so that we can have power from the bottom up and not from the top down.

Mr Davis 


I would like all the police to have a chance in the constitution-making process. They must be allowed to make suggestions because without them, the crime is going to escalate.

Mr Kulati Mdantsane


In an innovative step for the time, all the material of the Constitutional Assembly was made available on the World Wide Web. This included copies of the minutes of committee meetings and a massive searchable database of all the submissions made to the Constitutional Assembly. With the help of the University of Cape Town, the Assembly’s home page was regularly updated. Within four months of the launch of the website, 7 238 people made 56 798 requests for information.

Cyril Ramaphosa being shown the newly established website for the Constitutional Assembly by the British Ambassador, Robert Renwick. Subash Jeram / Constitutional Assembly

How did the Public Participation Programme (PPP) roll out?

The Constitutional Assembly launched its large-scale Public Participation Programme (PPP) at the end of 1994 with the result that 1995 was dubbed ‘The Year of the Constitution’. Once the negotiators in the theme committees reached agreement on the areas to be covered by the public, the Constitutional Education Programme created and disseminated educational materials to invite submissions. They placed advertisements in major newspapers inviting submissions. In the first three months of the process, an overwhelming 1 753 424 submissions were received.

Never in the history of South Africa have so many submissions been received in a period of less than three months … written by people from all walks of life. One can see from the handwriting that the writer is an ordinary person.

Enoch Sithole

then Constitutional Assembly spokesperson

The secretariat of the CA set up a meticulous process to ensure that the submissions reached the relevant theme committees.

Every morning, Box 15, Cape Town, 8000, is emptied and all the letters are opened and date-stamped. Then they are taken to the submissions department where they are sorted into subject matter and placed in boxes. Those that are in languages other than English are sent for translation and all handwritten submissions are retyped. The receipt of each letter is acknowledged. People have phoned us in amazement when they received a letter from the Constitutional Assembly thanking them for their contribution.


then Constitutional Assembly Submissions Department

An example of a written submission made to the Constitutional Assembly. Constitutional Assembly

Reports were written to summarise the submissions and group them into themes. Running tallies were kept of the number of submissions on each subject. Every letter has subsequently been archived ‘as a national treasure for future generations of South Africans’. From the start, these submissions were considered ‘the true voice of the people, an important part of the Constitutional Assembly legacy’.

Theme Committee 4, which focused on the Bill of Rights, received the bulk of the submissions.

The results

All these initiatives had a massive impact. The constitution-writing process was indeed out in the public domain. It was no longer the politicians and lawyers who were shaping the future of the country, but the South African nation in all its diversity. At this time newspapers were dedicating much space to such issues as the death penalty, land reform, and the right to strike. The CA considered the communication efforts highly successful.

For the first time in our history are we learning the true meaning of ‘participatory democracy’. Not only should citizens be allowed to elect their political representatives, but they should also be engaged in the process of law making.


then Executive of the Constitutional Assembly

The CA is succeeding a sense of constitutionalism in the minds of South Africans. This is an integral part of the ongoing struggle for democracy.

Cyril Ramaphosa

then Chair of the Constitutional Assembly

A survey commissioned by the CA showed that South Africa’s black rural population, and women in particular, required more knowledge of constitutional matters if the call for public participation was to be meaningful.

What were the nation's issues?

The kinds of issues raised in the submissions varied considerably, ranging from animal rights to gun ownership, from pornography to abortion and Afrikaans as an official language. The bulk related to human rights issues, particularly the ‘right to life’ and ‘second-generation rights’ like the right to education, housing and jobs. Most contentious during this process were objections to the sexual orientation clause and to the secular nature of the state.

The most humbling were the ones from ordinary people who just want the basic things in life. Sometimes they don’t even have a proper piece of paper to write on and they can hardly express themselves, but they send in their deepest thoughts. Some of them bring tears to
the eyes.


then Constitutional Assembly Submissions Department

Administrators sorting through the public submissions. Subash Jeram / Constitutional Assembly

Administrators sorting through the public submissions. Subash Jeram / Constitutional Assembly

From Paarl to Peddie, February 1995

The Constitutional Assembly began convening face-to-face meetings across the country in February 1995. These were dubbed by the press ‘the constitutional road-show’. The meetings targeted rural and disadvantaged communities who were often marginalised from the mainstream political processes and were unlikely to access information through print or electronic media. This was the only time in South Africa’s history that official politicians had gone to the people without canvassing for votes or seeking party political support. The process most closely resembled the Freedom Charter campaign in the 1950s, when volunteers had gone from door to door to collect people’s ideas.

The meetings began in Paarl, near Cape Town, where Ramaphosa addressed about 600 residents. Over the next few months, residents of informal settlements and big and small towns across the country were all afforded the opportunity to make oral submissions on issues pertaining to the writing of the
new Constitution.

From Paarl to Peddie, from Ellisras in the north to Saldahna in the west, members of the Constitutional Assembly have crisscrossed South Africa to hear the views of the people. At the 22 Constitutional Public Meetings, crowds have ranged from 130 to over 4,000 and the response generally has been enthusiastic.

Constitutional Talk

February 1995

While describing Ramaphosa as a forceful, sharp and diligent Chairperson inside Parliament, Leon Wessels has remarked that he was at his very best when he had the opportunity to interact with the public at these meetings.

Before a visit to the Western Cape town of Paarl I said: ‘Cyril, this is Afrikaans country. You cannot hope to win the people over if you speak English’. Ramaphosa addressed the rather conservative Paarl community in Afrikaans that day. He relished displaying his multilingualism – and he had the crowd eating out of his hand.

Leon Wessels

On Cyril Ramaphosa

It is a wonderful process to be involved in … It is all typically South African with the smooth edges as well as the rough ones, the many different views and beliefs, all the excitement and frustration. There are deep differences, but with a common loyalty to this country and a will to find each other, we can overcome them. And I am proud to be part of it.


on  his involvement in the Constitutional Assembly 

When it came to enthusiasm for the Public Participation Programme, it was hard to match that of Leon Wessels himself. In his role as Deputy Chairperson, a new world had opened up for him. He later commented that his involvement in the Constitutional Assembly ‘represented the pinnacle of my personal political career’.

In the end, more than a thousand workshops reached approximately 95 000 members of the public. So-called national sector hearings were held in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town, dealing with business, children’s rights, traditional leaders, religious groups, youth, labour and women. The Constitutional drafters crisscrossed the country, sometimes in military airplanes, to attend these meetings.

I recall a public meeting held in the Eastern Cape, which was reported on in a television broadcast. Several rural African women stood up to argue against the death penalty, and as I listened to their compassion for others, their fears, I was convinced that we could never enshrine the death penalty in our Constitution. There were surprises in the process too. Leaders of academia came to our committee meetings to argue for academic freedom under the right to freedom of expression. They convinced us.

Naledi Pandor

then ANC member of the Constitutional Assembly

The first Freedom Day, April 1995

As part of the Government of National Unity’s Freedom Day celebrations on 27 April 1995, the CA’s media unit produced this special commemorative poster. A collector’s photograph of President Nelson Mandela was inserted in newspapers nationally to advertise the talk-line. It depicts the President, dressed formally outside a private home, holding a cellular phone and saying, ‘Hello, is that the Constitutional talk-line? I would like to make my submission.’

The following year, for Human Rights Day on 21 March 1996, a poster was produced with the theme ‘Never Again’ and inserted into newspapers. This poster commemorated the Sharpeville killings of 1960 and explained the Bill of Rights in the new Constitution.

Special-edition poster for the Constitutional Assembly. Constitutional Assembly

From business to traditional leaders, May 1995

Throughout May and June 1995, the Constitutional Assembly ran consultations at a national level with major sectors of civil society, like the religious community, traditional leaders, business, youth and women. They engaged with around 596 different organisations. All Theme Committees were represented
at these hearings.

The purpose of these hearings is to give an opportunity to major sectors to make their views known on the Constitution.

Constitutional Assembly Annual Report

May 1994 - May 1995

May 1995 was also the month when the CA, in collaboration with SABC Educational, launched a weekly constitutional education radio talk-show that was developed and ultimately launched on 1 October 1995. These hour-long programmes were broadcast on eight SABC radio stations in eight languages. Surveys found that they reached 10 412 million South Africans each week. A record number of Constitutional Talk magazines were distributed as well. There is little doubt of the success of the public participation programme. This together with the openness and transparency of the workings of the Constitutional Assembly ensured that constitution-making in South Africa was unique.

Our meetings were totally open and transparent and afforded journalists little room to speculate. Our minutes were placed on the internet as soon as it was prepared. This set a new international benchmark in the design and management of constitution-making processes …

Hassen Ebrahim

then Executive Director of the Constitutional Assembly

Explore the archive




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