De Klerk bails out as constitution passes

Issue 

By Norm Dixon

National Party leader F.W. de Klerk on May 9 announced that his party will withdraw from South Africa's government of national unity (GNU) on June 30. The sudden announcement finally ends the apartheid party's 48-year continuous presence in the executive and terminates prematurely the power-sharing arrangement negotiated prior to the 1994 elections.

The NP's decision was prompted by the overwhelming passage by the Constitutional Assembly of the draft permanent constitution on May 8.

The constitution put paid to the NP's hopes of entrenched power sharing. The NP decided to begin immediately to build support as the ANC's main parliamentary opposition, rather than be hamstrung by remaining in the government for another three years.

The NP's ambition is to build a conservative alliance based on its strong support among conservative Afrikaners and wealthy whites, large sections of the "coloured" community in the Western Cape, conservative Christians of all races, assorted "minorities" and big business, whose interests would be at its core.

Responding to de Klerk's announcement, President Nelson Mandela gave assurances — directed towards nervous international markets, which immediately sent the value of the rand into free fall — that the NP's departure would not alter the government's direction: "Unity and reconciliation ... is a course that the government and the ANC have chosen to pursue in the interest of our country. It is a course that we will pursue with even more vigour in the coming months and years."

"The policies that the government of national unity has been executing are premised on the needs and aspirations of all the country's people ... to improve the quality of life of the people through sound economic policies of fiscal rectitude and other measures to promote growth and development. These policies will not change. Instead they will be promoted with even more focus", Mandela said.

De Klerk's announcement reflected the bruising the NP and its ally, the Democratic Party, took during negotiations for the permanent constitution. The final draft reflected the ANC's political dominance in post-apartheid South Africa, with most of the key compromises it made in the interim constitution falling by the wayside, the most important being the requirement of a multiparty cabinet.

Prior to the vote on the constitution, the NP refused to budge on three clauses in the constitution's bill of rights. They were a clause to allow employers the right to lock out striking workers, a clause to protect property owners from being "arbitrarily deprived" and a clause to guarantee the right to state-subsidised single-medium mother-tongue schools for all. All were designed to entrench the white minority's economic and social privileges.

The ANC stood firm, and with help of the decisive intervention of South Africa's trade union movement, which brought the country to a standstill in a general strike on April 30, defeated all three.

Another ANC success was a reduction in the power of provincial governments. The interim constitution's Senate has been replaced by a Council of Provinces composed of delegations from each of South Africa's nine provinces. If the council rejects legislation, the laws will still pass with a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

This provision dashed the hope of the NP — and Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, whose delegates boycotted the sessions of the Constitutional Assembly — that the constitution would allow provinces a veto.

That the new constitution is not a radical document was underlined by both the NP and the DP in the end voting for it, ensuring that the required two-thirds majority was reached. The far right Freedom Front abstained, while Inkatha was not present at the vote. Only the wacky two-MP African Christian Democratic Party voted against because, they announced, the Bible overrides the provisions of any constitution.

The new constitution draws heavily on those of Canada, the US, Germany and Ireland and brings South Africa into line with "normal" capitalist parliamentary democracies. The ANC's preferred property rights clause allows expropriation "to achieve land reform or equitable access to natural resources, or redress past racial discrimination, provided that these measures are reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society" but also guarantees compensation.

"Certainly the clause, read as a whole, is no mandate for widespread land appropriation in a madcap attempt to redress past racial discrimination — though business would prefer stronger safeguards" was the comment of South Africa's big business mouthpiece, the Financial Mail. "[The constitution] brings SA into line — on paper — with the world's democracies", it concluded.

Local and international capitalists remain nervous that the ANC may buckle to pressure from South Africa's majority for a rapid elimination of the poverty and dispossession that are the legacies of apartheid. Now, the ANC cabinet can no longer make the excuse that its conservative economic and political direction is necessary to keep the NP within the GNU.

It will be more difficult to restrain sections of the left and labour movement from raising the popular demand for the redistribution of wealth and power from South Africa's super-rich.

On May 14, Mandela announced that only four of the six ministries left vacant when NP members depart will be filled, cutting the size of the cabinet to 25. Recently sacked telecommunications minister Pallo Jordan — the ANC's most prominent socialist outside the Communist Party — will return as environment minister.

Meanwhile, the ANC national executive announced on May 13 that Cyril Ramaphosa's tenure as ANC secretary general would end as soon as the new constitution is certified by the Constitutional Court as consistent with the guidelines laid down in the interim constitution. This is expected to be completed by late August. Ramaphosa will become deputy chairperson of New Africa Investments Limited, the consortium bidding for a significant portion of the giant Anglo American Corporation.

He is likely to be replaced by Cheryl Carolus, presently ANC deputy general secretary. Carolus is also a Central Committee member of the South African Communist Party.