|South Africa Table of Contents
The new political system was established by the interim constitution voted into law in late 1993 and officially implemented on April 27, 1994. The interim constitution provides for a Government of National Unity and for a five-year transition, during which the final constitution would be drafted by the Constitutional Assembly, consisting of the combined Senate and National Assembly. To understand fully the revolutionary nature of the new government and the direction that the political transition is likely to take in the long term, it is necessary to examine the evolution of the political system that was based on the principles and practices of apartheid.
The Union of South Africa became a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth on May 31, 1910, when four British dependencies were merged under the South Africa Act passed by the British Parliament in 1909. Unification was interpreted differently by British and by Afrikaner leaders, however. To the British, uniting the four dependencies was central to their imperialist philosophy of consolidating the empire; to many Afrikaners, unity represented a step toward weakening British imperial influence. Ironically, however, this act failed to unite South Africa in a real sense because by excluding the black majority from political participation, it fueled the discontent and the conflict that characterized the country's politics throughout the twentieth century.
The South Africa Act served as the Union of South Africa's constitution until 1961. Although the country was formally ruled by a governor general representing the Crown, its government was granted almost total independence in internal affairs. Britain's 1931 Statute of Westminster removed many constitutional limitations on all British dominions, and South Africa's corresponding legislation, the Status of Union Act of 1934, declared that no act of the British parliament could apply to South Africa unless accepted by the Union parliament.
South Africa officially became the Republic of South Africa on May 31, 1961, following a national referendum among the country's white voters on October 5, 1960. The constitution of 1961 was based largely on the South Africa Act, but it severed ties with the British Commonwealth of Nations, replacing the words "king," "queen," and "crown" with "state." The state president replaced the British monarch and governor general.
The 1961 constitution provided for a president, a prime minister, and an executive council (cabinet) with offices at Pretoria (where most of the administrative bureaucracy was located). A bicameral legislature was situated at Cape Town. The independent judiciary was headquartered at Bloemfontein.
The 1961 constitution maintained white political domination through an electoral system that denied blacks, coloureds, and Asians the right to vote for national office holders. Coloureds and Asians, but not blacks, won limited participation in ethnic affairs through, respectively, a Coloured Persons' Representative Council established in 1964 and a South African Indian Council established in 1968. Since 1951 the Bantu Authorities Act had restricted black political participation to homelands (also referred to as Bantustans) set aside for Africans. During the 1970s and the 1980s, four of the ten homelands were declared "independent" black states, while the remaining six were known as "self-governing" territories.
Following intense debate and a series of legislative revisions in the early 1980s, the new Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act (No. 110) of 1983 went into effect on September 22, 1984. It outlined a government led by a president, who served as head of state and chief executive, and a parliamentary system with increased coloured and Indian representation. The new, tricameral Parliament encompassed a (white) House of Assembly, a (coloured) House of Representatives, and an (Indian) House of Delegates. The president was selected by an eighty-eight-member electoral college consisting of fifty whites, twenty-five coloureds, and thirteen Indians, chosen by a majority vote in their respective houses of parliament. The president served for the duration of the parliament that selected him, normally a five-year term. The president could dissolve the parliament, or could extend it by up to six months beyond its five-year term.
The president shared executive authority with a cabinet, which he appointed from the tricameral parliament, and with a Ministers Council chosen by him from the majority in each house of parliament. In addition, the president relied on a sixty-member President's Council for advice on urgent matters and for resolution of differences among houses of parliament. The President's Council comprised twenty members from the House of Assembly, ten from the House of Representatives, five from the House of Delegates, fifteen nominated by the president, and ten nominated by opposition party leaders. The NP dominated the President's Council throughout the ten-year duration of the 1983 constitution.
The three-chambered parliament was based on a fundamental premise of the 1983 constitution, the distinction between a racial community's "own" affairs (encompassing education, health, housing, social welfare, local government, and some aspects of agriculture), and "general" affairs (encompassing defense, finance, foreign policy, justice, law and order, transport, commerce and industry, manpower, internal affairs, and overall agricultural policy). Thus, legislation "affecting the interests" of one community was deliberated upon by the appropriate house, but legislation on "general affairs" of importance to all races was handled by all three houses of parliament. Disagreements among houses of parliament on specific legislation could be resolved by the President's Council, giving the NP-dominated House of Assembly substantial weight in determining the outcome of all legislative debates. The president signed all legislation, and he also exercised administrative responsibility for black affairs.
The country was divided into four provinces--Cape of Good Hope Province (later, the Cape Province), Natal Province, the Transvaal, and the Orange Free State. The president appointed a provincial administrator for each province. Until the mid-1980s, the provincial administrator acted in consultation with a provincial council, which was elected by whites only. In July 1987, the provincial councils were replaced by eight multiracial regional services councils (RSCs)--four in the Transvaal, three in the Cape Province, and one in the Orange Free State. The RSCs were empowered to administer government regulations and to coordinate the provision of services to local communities.
More about the Government of South Africa.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress