The recent civil unrest throughout various parts of the country indicates the harsh reality that the needs of South Africa’s majority are not being met. This is according to former Chief Negotiator to end apartheid and lawyer, Roelf Meyer, who says that for those involved in the country’s turbulent pre-94 years, the uprisings served as a flashback to the 1980’s landscape of apartheid South Africa. He says this begs the question: do we need to formulate a way of addressing the populace’s concerns that is founded on the same principles which underpinned negotiations for the 1994 elections? Has the time come for an economic CODESA?
Here, “economic CODESA,” refers to a contemporary version of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), concerning economic matters rather than solely the country’s political future.
Meyer’s comment formed part of the PSG Think Big Series – a collection of dialogues with high-profile personalities that address burning issues. In the most recent webinar installment, during which he provides his perspectives on the recent unrest that gripped the country, and also offers his insights on the future of the South African Constitution.
Meyer says that he has always been resistant to the notion of an economic CODESA because the country simply cannot repeat the way things were done in the past and expect it to yield similar results within today’s context. “However, what if we call it something different – something that reflects the nuances of contemporary South African society and its unique challenges? Ultimately, we need to question whether allowing the pre-94 economic model to persist into our new, democratic dispensation was the right decision when it is clearly not providing for the basic needs of most South Africans.”
Meyer served as Minister of Defense and Constitutional Affairs in the cabinet of former President FW de Klerk and was intimately involved in negotiations with former ANC Chief Negotiator and current South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, which ultimately led to the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.
He explains that CODESA materialised as a conference that took place during the reign of the apartheid government, where more than 20 organisations, united in their opposition to apartheid, discussed the logistical technicalities of a changeover of political leadership. CODESA played a pivotal role in the formation of South Africa’s new, democratic government.
Reflecting on his experience as former Chief Negotiator pre-94, Meyer draws parallels between the recent riots and the angst that surrounded the weeks leading up to the final anti-apartheid negotiations. “There were moments when the recent riots triggered memories of the breakdowns we experienced during anti-apartheid negotiations. For a moment, some of us may have wondered if the state of democracy was being derailed. But at the same time, the fact that we as South Africans can say that we still have a functioning democracy after the widespread destruction we’ve seen, is a sign that we are still heading in the right direction,” explains Meyer.
When questioned on what the hallmarks of a functional democracy are in light of the fact that the liberation party remains the ruling party after 27 years, Meyer pointed to the supremacy of the South African Constitution, which has proven highly effective in challenging matters involving the Zuma administration, for example. “The voters have chosen the ruling party and that is a function of democracy. The question we need to ask now is whether the ruling party can redefine and renew itself to meet the evolving socio-economic needs of the country and to remain relevant,” he argues.
On the future of the Constitution, Meyer says that the Constitution itself is a framework – one that is safeguarded and implemented by the chapter nine state institutions that support constitutional democracy, among them, being The Public Protector, the Auditor-General, and The Electoral Commission. “We are very fortunate in that the composition of our Constitutional Court has set an example for us and for the rest of the world with regards to the way it adjudicates, but we also need to remember that the way an institution is positioned, depends largely on the personalities of those who run it – we’ve seen this time and time again.”
Touching on the hotly contested issue of land reform, Meyer presents the opinion that at the heart of the issue; and despite the prevailing political rhetoric, is not land appropriation without compensation but the need to make land available to farmers who want to farm for commercial purposes. It was for this reason that Meyer formed part of the founding constituent of the Agricultural Development Agency – a private institution that facilitates capital support and skills transfer for new farmers so that the needs of emerging farmers can be met, as well as the needs of a country with huge agricultural potential.
Ultimately what all these advancements in the legal, political and socio-economic sphere come down to is “implementation,” and in Meyer’s opinion – based on his pre-94 dealings with Cyril Ramaphosa as well as the close relationship he has with the president in an advisory capacity – president Ramaphosa is well-positioned and prepared to lead that implementation.
In closing, Meyer commented on the resilience of the South African civil society in the face of a very unstable and challenging economic and political climate. “The unrest gave rise to countless opportunities to further the populist agenda, but South Africa has shown that it has no appetite for that. As a result, we have weathered a difficult storm, and this was reflected in the consistency of the value of the rand which did not deteriorate dramatically during this period. That is an inspiring and encouraging picture.”
Charles Lombard, PSG Asset Management’s Head of Retail Distribution, concluded the webinar by reflecting on the challenges and successes that were highlighted by Meyer. “Some positive points are that the country is definitely moving in the right direction, we have a solid democracy in place and civil society has done some excellent work.” The longevity of the South African Constitution resides in the fact that our democratic values have been solidified and have set an example for the world.