Negotiating
The Preamble

Although the Preamble has its place at the beginning of the Constitution, it was in fact drafted right at the end of the constitution-making process. The committee charged with writing the Preamble formulated draft after draft. Ultimately, they reached a deadlock concerning the exclusion of the opening line of the Preamble of the Interim Constitution, namely, ‘In humble submission to Almighty God’. 

It was only at 2.40 am on Thursday, 18 April 1996 – 19 days to the deadline for the finalisation of the final Constitution – that a historic breakthrough was made on the issue. The final version was negotiated by Blade Nzimande (from the ANC) and Dr Boy Geldenhuys (from the NP). 

Blade Nzimande presented the Constitutional Committee with the agreed-upon text during a marathon all-night session in Parliament. The Constitutional Committee convened on an almost hourly basis, receiving reports from sub-committees, multilaterals and bilaterals on several difficult issues. There was great surprise and jubilation that agreement had been reached on the text of the Preamble.

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How was our preamble written?

Handwritten changes to the Preamble of the Constitution.
Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory

Who wrote the Preamble?

The writing of the Preamble was entrusted to a committee within the Constitutional Assembly. All of the political parties offered their views on what the Preamble should contain. These differed strikingly as can be seen from each of these submissions.

Read the proposed preambles from the different political parties

African Christian Democratic Party

The Pan-Africanist Congress

The National Party

The Democratic Party

The African National Congress

When was it written?

Although the Preamble has its place at the beginning of the Constitution, it was in fact drafted at the end of the constitution-making process. It therefore summarises the work done during the drafting process and the conclusions reached. It also recognizes the will of the people through public consultations conducted throughout the drafting process. In this way, it speaks on behalf of the people. The intention was to keep it simple so that even kids could learn the Preamble by heart. However, the process became highly contentious and kept the drafters busy until just weeks before the deadline.

The Freedom Charter and the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States also begins with the words ‘We, the People’.

When was it finalised?

In fact, it was at 2.40 am, on Thursday, 18 April 1996 – 19 days to the deadline for the finalisation of the final Constitution of South Africa that Blade Nzimande from the ANC entered the committee room bearing evidence of a historic breakthrough on the issue of the Preamble. Blade Nzimande had in his hands the agreed-on text to show to the National Party’s (NP) Dr Boy Geldenhuys. In the previous weeks, the parties had reached a deadlock concerning the exclusion of the opening line of the Preamble of the Interim Constitution, namely, ‘In humble submission to Almighty God’.

View the Interim Constitution

The NP were resolute that a Preamble had to start with these words given the high percentage of South Africans who were Christians. Although the African National Congress (ANC) accepted that the majority of South Africans, including their own members regarded themselves as Christians, it would be wrong to impose a powerful religious stamp on a document governing the functioning of a secular state. There were several rounds of reformulations and negotiations continued around the wording with several options on the table. Blade Nzimande recalls that the NP couldn’t believe that agreement had been reached: 

Everyone was looking and saying that there must be something fishy between the two of us. How can Boy Geldenhuys, who is so very anti-communist, sit with a communist on a one-to-one basis and actually reach some kind of understanding?

Blade Nzimande

then ANC member of the Constitutional Assembly

It was a really very exciting moment. It was sort of profound. Quite an unbelievable experience … I don’t even know that I realised what a historical moment it was for me personally, but I sat there, just doing my job, trying to work towards a Preamble and believing in everything that I wrote in it.

Kate Savage

then researcher and writer on the Preamble team

The Preamble was concluded just 19 days before the final draft of the Constitution was concluded.

A LINE-BY-LINE STORY OF THE PREAMBLE

Key people in the drafting of the preamble were Boys Geldenhuys from the National Party and Joel Netshitenzhe and Blade Nzimande on behalf of the ANC. Here Joel Netshitenzhe and Kate Savage, then researcher and now a judge in the High Court, narrate the debates and issues over the Preamble line by line.

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Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 – Preamble

We, the people South Africa,

Recognise the injustices of our past;

Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; 

Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and

Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to

Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;

Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and (instead of just recognising only those who fought for justice)

Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

May God protect our people. 

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso.

God seën Suid-Afrika. God bless South Africa.

Mudzimu fhatutshedza Afurika. Hosi katekisa Afrika.

Kate Savage: So once Blade and I had agreed on the Preamble, we took it to Cyril. He agreed to it. It went into the Constitutional Assembly processes and the slight tweaks were done through those processes including the ‘respect’ clause and then it went into the draft of the Constitution, so it became the beginning of the Constitution. I think then we started to really feel that we have a final Preamble for the final Constitution.”

Kate Savage: So by 3 a.m., Friday the 19th April 1996, we had a document which said, ‘We the people, recognise, honour, believe and we therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the Supreme Law of the Republic, so as to heal, lay, improve, build….’ and then we had the words, ‘May God protect our people, Nkosi Sikelel’ Afrika’. It was probably an error, because I had talked everybody into it and discussed taking the English out of the bottom, but we left in ‘God bless South Africa’ as well, and then that was that.”

Joel Netshitenzhe: “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. The ‘new’ anthem(s) had already been agreed in the Interim Constitution, and so, while the discussion went back and forth, it was a question of finding the location of the ringing words in the liberation anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika in various languages.”

Kate Savage: “Boys then wrote option 2 onto my 15 April draft. This read ‘May God, in whom we trust, bless South Africa’ which he proposed be included at the end of the Preamble before the reference to the national anthem. This too was not accepted, and three other options were mooted while we sought a solution. At this time Kenneth Creamer, who was working for COSATU in the constitutional process, was assisting.

Option 3 read: We, the people of SA, in pursuit of the common good and some in faithfulness to God’. Option 4 read: We, the people of SA, in pursuit of the common good and God in whom we trust; and Option 5 read: May God, in whom we trust, protect our people.

 Each option which saw the Preamble starting with a reference to God was not acceptable to the ANC. This saw options 2 and 5 remaining.

The National Party wouldn’t accept that Nkosi Sikelel’ Afrika was sufficient. We had tried all sorts of solutions, but nobody could agree on one.

In spite of the deadlock which had arisen, we did however have some space to move. I suddenly thought that since there was already a reference to God in the last lines of the Preamble, which was taken from the national anthem, why don’t we insert a line above Nkosi Sikelel’? If we could find the wording for that line that’s acceptable to the ANC, that would be the solution. And I thought that the line should be, ‘God bless South Africa’, and then ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ in all the other languages, but English.

I proposed to Blade Nzimande that the inclusion of a reference to God above this anthem reference could be agreed if the English words ‘God bless South Africa’ in the last lines of the Preamble were removed. This is what unlocked the dispute as it was finally agreed that the line ‘May God protect our people’ be inserted.

The English words ‘God bless South Africa’ were ultimately not removed below but were left in together with the other languages at the end of the Preamble.”

Kate Savage: The big outstanding issue was the inclusion of a reference to God in the preamble. Boy Geldenhuys said, ‘Kate, there is no preamble without God. It has to be a preamble which starts with ‘In submission to Almighty God, or ‘We, the people, recognising Almighty God’ or there must be some credit to God right at the front of the preamble. Anything less than that is not going to be acceptable. We are a country in which more than 90 percent of the people are Christians’.

 I went to both Blade Nzimande and Cyril Ramaphosa with this proposal. Both said absolutely not, we are a secular state and we are not going to have a reference to God in the preamble. Blade’s words were: ‘Forget it. Absolutely forget it. We’re not going to have God at the beginning of the Preamble’, and he literally walked away.

When I told Boy Geldenhuys this, he said it is a non-negotiable and was resolute that there would have to be a reference to God included.

I said to him, ‘Let’s see if we can’t find a solution. Is there not another way of dealing with this issue?’”

Joel Netshitenzhe: “The issue of ‘quality of life’ was and is central to the ANC’s approach – that liberation was about more than just equal political rights, but also about changing people’s lives for the better.”

Joel Netshitenzhe: “The phrase ‘based on the will of the people’ was referenced from the Freedom Charter, for its profound meaning.”

Joel Netshitenzhe: “The Freedom Charter served as reference to this formulation. The notion of ‘unity in diversity’ had also started to gain prominence in discourse during the negotiations and in election manifestos. This was quite a profound appreciation that, while in the past diversity was used to divide, it could in fact become a strength and an attribute of the South African nation.”

Kate Savage: “In the draft Joel and I worked on we did not have this clause in but use respect but had a clause which read: “Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations”. This was taken from an earlier ANC preamble proposal of 13 March 1996.

The 15 April 1996 draft that I prepared therefore used the verbs ‘recognise, ‘honour’ and ‘believe’. 

On reflection in the following days we felt that perhaps we should rather use the verb ‘respect’ to accord some recognition to the diverse composition of people who had worked to build and develop South Africa. This, as I recall it, led to the respect clause being included in its current form.”

Kate Savage: “The National Party proposal had been to start the Preamble with the words, ‘In humble submission to Almighty God, we the people of South Africa declare that…’ It had words such as ‘whereas and a very legalistic tone.’ 

Apart from a reference to the national anthem at the end, we specifically excluded a reference to God in the preamble in our 15 April draft. We wanted to reflect that the Constitution was made by and belonged to us the people, so we started it with the words ‘We, the people of South Africa’. This was to become a major obstacle in finalising the Preamble as I describe below.”

Kate Savage: “During April 1996 I prepared a document which set out the key words and phrases contained in the preamble proposals of the three largest parties, the ANC, NP and DP. I then checked for any wording in the proposals of other political parties which may be useful.

 After I had done this, I met with Joel Netshitenzhe at President Mandela’s office in Tuynhuys. The two of us came up with the ANC’s proposal of 15 April 1996 for the Preamble which then formed the basis for the negotiations.”

Joel Netshitenzhe: “I remember that a message had come from the negotiators proposing that we needed to find some ringing words for the preamble. I was approached because of my position as head of communications in the President’s Office and for my involvement in drafting ANC documents.

Arising from the discussion, I quickly drafted proposals by hand and passed them on to the negotiators.

 The arrangement and re-arrangement of the sections was a process of refinement by the technical drafters and the elected representatives.”

Joel Netshitenzhe: “One of main principles for the ANC was the issue of a secular state and consciously avoiding conflation of religion (let alone one system of faith) with the state.

 The detailed negotiations took place among the members of the CA; the reference to the people as the collective owners of the Constitution was appealing to the ANC.

 Besides the formulation contained in the Preamble to the 1955 Freedom Charter, from the very beginning of the negotiations, the ANC had insisted that the Constitution should be drafted by elected representatives of the people.”

Kate Savage: “After hours of further negotiations and consultations, we agreed on ‘May God protect our people’. So by 3 a.m., Friday the 19th April 1996, we had a document which said, “We the people, recognise, honour, believe and we therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the Supreme Law of the Republic, so as to heal, lay, improve, build….” and then we had the words, ‘May God protect our people, Nkosi Sikelel’ Afrika’. It was probably an error, because I had talked everybody into it and discussed taking the English out of the bottom, but we left in ‘God bless South Africa’ as well, and then that was that.”

Kate Savage: “In the 15 April draft the verbs ‘heal’, ‘lay’, ‘improve’ and ‘build’ were used specifically to reflect what it was that we wanted to achieve and build as a country.”

Kate Savage: “We included the words ‘social justice’ during negotiations at the time when the NP wanted the Preamble to begin with the words ‘In humble submission to Almighty God’ before we had ‘We, the people of South Africa’.”

Kate Savage: “The draft I had prepared on 15 April 1996 did not include the words ‘through our freely elected representatives’. This was inserted as we negotiated the final text.”

Kate Savage: “Initially, we had tried to record the notion that we believed that people of diverse backgrounds can live together as equals and compatriots, united in common loyalty to build a new nation. We had also included a clause celebrating the diversity of our nation which had come from the ANC preamble proposal and a reference to our aspiring to achieve our full economic, social and cultural development. 

When I prepared the 15 April draft, I felt that the tone set by the verb ‘celebrate’ did not adequately reflect where we had come from and the solemnity of the first lines would be lost if we included the verb at this point.

 In the draft of 15 April 1996, it seemed that the notion of diversity fitted more comfortably and it was for this reason that ‘united in our diversity’ was included at this point. The Freedom Charter had used the words ‘black and white’ but the ANC preamble proposal had used the word ‘diversity’ in the context of never permitting our diversity to render our nation apart.

This then concluded the first part of the preamble in which we had sought to set out the basis from which we declared that we proceeded as a nation.”

Kate Savage: “Our first draft honoured the countless men and women who have suffered for freedom and justice in our land. I later reverted back to simpler ‘those’, as was included in the ANC proposal.”

Kate Savage: “There was a view from the other parties, as I recall, that we did not respect what had been built in this country up until now and that we needed to honour that in some way, so this line was a very last-minute addition …

In the previous drafts, we had never used the actual word ‘respect’. We’d more been committed and striving towards the future … but the National Party and the Democratic Party (DP) had a lot more focus on respecting our forefathers and forbearers in terms of where we’d come from.”

Joel Netshitenzhe: “This formulation was at the insistence of the National Party and the DP – reflecting the notion that, in addition to the struggle for freedom, South Africa had been developed over the years as a consequence of the efforts of our forebearers.

While there was concern that this may reinforce the belief in ‘the civilising mission of colonialism’, the formulation was accepted because, in any case, the development of the country was a product of the labours of all across the racial divide.
‘Respect’ seems to have finally been accepted as it softened what may have been the NP’s and DP’s intention with this clause.”

Kate Savage: “We started with the verb ‘recognise’ so as to emphasise right from the outset the terrible injustices which had gone before. Our first draft included the ‘resolve to redress the divisive legacy of apartheid’ but we took this out because it was not only apartheid but also the terrible legacy of injustice and inequality in this country even before it.

Joel proposed that we include ‘we strive to improve the quality of life of all citizens’. However, we later decided to take that out.

 I then worked on a structure in which we set some foundational beliefs in the first part of the preamble and we would then move to what it is we strive for in the second part. I looked at the Freedom Charter as a guide.”

Kate Savage: “Blade Nzimande said to me: ‘We should keep the Preamble simple, so that even kids could learn it by heart.’ And that was true … Our earlier draft was all very nice and very poetic, but it was also very long-winded – it had ‘recognising the injustices of our past, resolving to heal the divisions among us, striving to improve the quality of life of all of our citizens, etc.’

Joel and I agreed that we should retain the use of strong verbs at the beginning of each sentence. From my comparison document I had made a list of verbs we may want to use, and
he came up with some others.”

Joel Netshitenzhe: “The discussion helped to identify both the reference to historical and current reality, as well as the aspirations we strive for.”

Kate Savage: “The National Party proposal had been to start the Preamble with the words, ‘In humble submission to Almighty God, we the people of South Africa declare that…’ It had then been ‘whereas and whereas and whereas’ in a very legalistic tone.

Apart from a reference to the national anthem at the end, we specifically excluded a reference to God in the preamble in our 15 April draft. We wanted to reflect that the Constitution was made by and belonged to us the people, so we started it with the words ‘We, the people of South Africa’. This was to become a major obstacle in finalizing the Preamble as I describe below.”

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