The Interim Constitution was a historic bridge in two senses: It made possible the transition from apartheid rule to democratic elections, and also provided a bridge between the present and the future.
The most important elements in that bridge to the future were the 34 Constitutional Principles laid down in Schedule 4 of the Constitution and characterised in the Preamble as ‘a solemn pact’: ‘elected representatives of all the people of South Africa should be mandated to adopt a new constitution in accordance with a solemn pact recorded as Constitutional Principles’.
These foundational principles did not prescribe in advance the institutional or structural means by which they were to be implemented. According to the ANC, ‘They should impel the negotiating process forward by giving all participants the guarantee that they are not signing a blank constitutional cheque which could permit discrimination against themselves or any other section of the community in the future.’
The Constitutional Principles provided for:
- A democratic, constitutional government with regular elections, universal adult suffrage, a common voters’ roll, and a proportional representation electoral system
- Equality between men and women, and between people of all races
- The prohibition of racial, gender, or any other form of discrimination
- Unity between people of difference races, between men and women, and between people in the country as a whole
- Equality before the law
- Open and accountable administration at all levels of government
- Protection for different languages and cultures
- A separation of powers between legislative, executive, and judicial arms of government
- Fair labour practices
- A security force that will act for the good of the country and not work for or against any particular political party
- A professional and efficient public service broadly representative of the South African population.
Years later, when the Constitutional Court came to certify the final Constitution, it reflected on the success of these Principles.
The Principles arose out of the negotiating process as the result of a compromise between two extremes – on the one hand, the view that the multi-party negotiation at CODESA was an illegitimate forum in which to draft a constitution because the delegates there were unelected and unaccountable; and on the other hand, the fear that a Constitutional Assembly could be dominated by a single party, who could then draft the constitution of its choice. The Principles struck a middle road, by being sufficiently precise so as to guarantee that the constitution-making body did not stray from certain fundamental notions, but not so detailed as to pre-empt the work of that body.
The MPNP agreed that the Constitutional Assembly had to follow these Principles when it was writing the final Constitution. It would then be up to the Constitutional Court, which had been brought into being by the Interim Constitution, to ensure that the Constitution devised by the Constitutional Assembly conformed with these principles.