Constitution of South Africa

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The Constitution of South Africa is the supreme law of the country of South Africa. It provides the legal foundation for the existence of the republic, sets out the rights and duties of its citizens, and defines the structure of the government. The current constitution, the country's fifth, was drawn up by the Parliament elected in 1994 in the first non-racial elections. It was promulgated by President Nelson Mandela on 18th December 1996 and came into effect on 4 February 1997, replacing the Interim Constitution of 1993.[1]

Since 1996, the Constitution has been amended by seventeen amendment acts. The Constitution is formally entitled the "Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996." It was previously also numbered as if it were an Act of Parliament—Act No. 108 of 1996—but, since the passage of the Citation of Constitutional Laws Act,[2] neither it nor the acts amending it are allocated act numbers.



An integral part of the negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa was the creation of a new, non-discriminatory constitution for the country. One of the major disputed issues was the process by which such a constitution would be adopted. The African National Congress (ANC) insisted that it should be drawn up by a democratically-elected constituent assembly, while the governing National Party (NP) feared that the rights of minorities would not be protected in such a process, and proposed instead that the constitution be negotiated by consensus between the parties and then put to a referendum.[3][4]

Formal negotiations began in December 1991 at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). The parties agreed on a process whereby a negotiated transitional constitution would provide for an elected constitutional assembly to draw up a permanent constitution.[3] The CODESA negotiations broke down, however, after the second plenary session in May 1992. One of the major points of dispute was the size of the supermajority that would be required for the assembly to adopt the constitution: The NP wanted a 75 per cent requirement,[4] which would effectively have given it a veto.[3]

In April 1993, the parties returned to negotiations, in what was known as the Multi-Party Negotiating Process (MPNP). A committee of the MPNP proposed the development of a collection of "constitutional principles" with which the final constitution would have to comply, so that basic freedoms would be ensured and minority rights protected, without overly limiting the role of the elected constitutional assembly.[4] The parties to the MPNP adopted this idea and proceeded to draft the Interim Constitution of 1993, which was formally enacted by Parliament and came into force on 27 April 1994.

Interim Constitution

The Interim Constitution provided for a Parliament made up of two houses: a 400-member National Assembly, directly elected by party-list proportional representation, and a ninety-member senate, in which each of the nine provinces was represented by ten senators, elected by the provincial legislature. The Constitutional Assembly consisted of both houses sitting together, and was responsible for drawing up a final constitution within two years. The adoption of a new constitutional text required a two-thirds supermajority in the Constitutional Assembly, as well as the support of two-thirds of senators on matters relating to provincial government. If a two-thirds majority could not be obtained, a constitutional text could be adopted by a simple majority and then put to a national referendum in which sixty per cent support would be required for it to pass.

The Interim Constitution contained 34 constitutional principles with which the new constitution was required to comply. These included multi-party democracy with regular elections and universal adult suffrage, supremacy of the constitution over all other law, a quasi-federal system in place of centralised government, non-racism and non-sexism, the protection of "all universally accepted fundamental rights, freedoms and civil liberties," equality before the law, the separation of powers with an impartial judiciary, provincial and local levels of government with democratic representation, and protection of the diversity of languages and cultures. The Bill of Rights, now in Chapter Two of the Constitution of South Africa, was largely written by Kader Asmal and Albie Sachs. The new constitutional text was to be tested against these principles by the newly established Constitutional Court. If the text complied with the principles, it would become the new constitution; if it did not, it would be referred back to the Constitutional Assembly.

Final text

The Constitutional Assembly engaged in a massive public participation programme to solicit views and suggestions from the public. As the deadline for the adoption of a constitutional text approached, however, many issues were hashed out in private meetings between the parties' representatives.[3] On 8 May 1996, a new text was adopted with the support of 86 per cent of the members of the assembly,[4] but in the First Certification judgment, delivered on 6 September 1996, the Constitutional Court refused to certify this text. The Constitutional Court identified a number of provisions that did not comply with the constitutional principles. Areas of non-compliance included failures to protect the right of employees to engage in collective bargaining; to provide for the constitutional review of ordinary statutes; to entrench fundamental rights, freedoms and civil liberties and to sufficiently safeguard the independence of the Public Protector and Auditor-General as well as other areas of non-compliance in relation to local government responsibilities and powers.[5]

The Constitutional Assembly reconvened and, on 11 October, adopted an amended constitutional text containing many changes relative to the previous text. Some dealt with the court's reasons for non-certification, while others tightened up the text. The amended text was returned to the Constitutional Court to be certified, which the court duly did in its Second Certification judgment, delivered on 4 December.[6] The Constitution was signed by President Mandela on 10 December and officially published in the Government Gazette on 18 December. It did not come into force immediately; it was brought into operation on 4 February 1997, by a presidential proclamation, except for some financial provisions which were delayed until 1 January 1998.

Since its adoption, the Constitution has been amended seventeen times; these amendments are described in a separate section below.


The constitution consists of a preamble, fourteen chapters containing 244 sections,[7] and eight schedules. Each chapter deals with a particular topic; the schedules contain ancillary information referred to in the main text.

Chapter 1: Founding Provisions

Chapter 1 enshrines in the constitution key national principles, defines the country's flag and national anthem, and specifies the official languages and principles of government language policy. It defines South Africa as "one, sovereign, democratic state" based on principles of human rights, constitutional supremacy, the rule of law and universal adult suffrage. The chapter contains a supremacy clause which establishes that all other law and actions are subject to the constitution.

Chapter 2: Bill of Rights

Chapter 2 is a bill of rights which enumerates the civil, political, economic, social and cultural human rights of the people of South Africa. Most of these rights apply to anyone in the country, with the exception of the right to vote, the right to work and the right to enter the country, which apply only to citizens. They also apply to juristic persons to the extent that they are applicable, taking into account the nature of the right. The rights enumerated are:

Section 36 allows the rights listed to be limited only by laws of general application, and only to the extent that the restriction is reasonable and justifiable in "an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom."[10]

Section 37 allows certain rights to be limited during a state of emergency but places strict procedural limits on the declaration of states of emergency and provides for the rights of people detained as a result.

Chapter 3: Co-operative Government

Chapter 3 deals with the relationships between organs of government in the three "spheres" – national, provincial and local. It lays down a set of principles requiring them to co-operate in good faith and to act in the best interests of the people. It also requires them to attempt to settle disputes amicably before resorting to the courts.

Chapter 4: Parliament

Chapter 4 defines the structure of Parliament, the legislative branch of the national government. Parliament consists of two houses, the National Assembly (the lower house), which is directly elected by the people, and the National Council of Provinces (the upper house), which is elected by the provincial legislatures.

The Chapter defines the principles governing the election and dissolution of the houses, qualifications for membership of Parliament, quorum requirements, procedures for the election of presiding officers, and the powers and privileges and immunities of Parliament and its members. It lays down the process for enacting bills into law; different procedures are provided for constitutional amendments, ordinary bills not affecting provincial matters, ordinary bills affecting provincial matters, and money bills.

Chapter 5: The President and National Executive

Chapter 5 defines the structure of the national executive and the powers of the President. It provides for the election and removal of the President by the National Assembly, and limits a President to two five-year terms. It vests in him or her the powers of the head of state and head of government; it provides for the appointment of a Cabinet by the President; and it provides for the accountability to Parliament of the President and Cabinet.

Chapter 6: Provinces

Chapter 6 establishes the nine provinces of South Africa and defines the powers and structure of the provincial governments. The boundaries of the provinces are defined by reference to Schedule 1A to the Constitution, which refers in turn to the boundaries of the metropolitan and district municipalities.

In some respects, the chapter is a template which a province may modify to a limited extent by adopting its own provincial constitution. (The only province so far to have done this is the Western Cape.) The chapter provides for a unicameral legislature, a Premier elected by the legislature as head of the provincial executive, and an Executive Council appointed by the Premier as a provincial cabinet.

The provincial government is given exclusive powers over certain matters, listed in Schedule 5, and powers concurrent with the national government over other matters, listed in Schedule 4. The chapter regulates the conflict between national and provincial legislation on the same topic, setting out the circumstances under which one or the other will prevail.

Chapter 7: Local Government

Chapter 7 sets out a framework for local government. It requires municipalities to be established for the whole territory of South Africa, and provides for three categories of municipalities, whereby some areas are governed by a single "Category A" municipal authority and others are governed by a two-level system with a larger "Category C" municipality containing multiple "Category B" municipalities. The municipalities are granted the power to administer certain matters listed in Schedules 4 and 5, and the executive and legislative authority is vested in the municipal council. The chapter requires municipal elections to be held every five years.

Chapter 8: Courts and Administration of Justice

Chapter 8 establishes the structure of the judicial system. It defines the hierarchy consisting of Magistrates' Courts, the High Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal, and the Constitutional Court. It provides for the appointment of judges by the President on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission and establishes a single National Prosecuting Authority responsible for all criminal prosecutions.

Chapter 9: State Institutions Supporting Constitutional Democracy

Chapter 9 creates a number of other commissions and offices to protect and support democracy and human rights. These are the Public Protector (an ombudsman), the South African Human Rights Commission, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, the Commission for Gender Equality, the Auditor-General, the Independent Electoral Commission and the Independent Communications Authority.

Chapter 10: Public Administration

Chapter 10 lists values and principles for the administration of the civil service and establishes the Public Service Commission to oversee it.

Chapter 11: Security Services

Chapter 11 establishes structures for civilian control of the Defence Force, the Police Service and the intelligence services. It makes the President the Commander-in-Chief of the defence force but places conditions on when and how it may be employed and requires regular reports to Parliament. The police service is placed under the control of the national government but gives provincial governments some power to administer and oversee policing.

Chapter 12: Traditional Leaders

Chapter 12 recognizes the status and authority of traditional leaders and customary law, subject to the Constitution. It allows for the creation of provincial houses of traditional leaders and a national council of traditional leaders.

Chapter 13: Finance

Chapter 13 deals with public finance. It establishes a National Revenue Fund, from which money may be appropriated only by an act of Parliament, and Provincial Revenue Funds, from which money may only be appropriated by an act of the provincial legislature. It provides for an equitable distribution of national revenue to the provinces and municipalities, and grants provincial and local governments the powers to raise certain rates and taxes. It requires effective and transparent budgeting at all levels of government and gives the National Treasury the power to oversee budgetary processes. It places some restrictions on government procurement and government borrowing. The chapter establishes the Financial and Fiscal Commission, to advise government on financial matters, and the Reserve Bank, to oversee the currency.

Chapter 14: General Provisions

The final chapter deals with transitional and incidental provisions. In particular, the first part deals with international law, providing that existing agreements binding South Africa will continue to bind it, and that new agreements (except those of a technical nature) will only be binding once approved by Parliament. It also provides that customary international law applies in South African unless it conflicts with national law, and that the courts must, where possible, interpret national law to be consistent with international law.

The remainder of the chapter contains a miscellaneous collection of provisions,

  • allowing Parliament to enact Charters of Rights which expand on the Bill of Rights;
  • allowing recognition of the right of self-determination of communities within South Africa;
  • requiring public funding for political parties represented in national and provincial legislatures;
  • requiring that obligations imposed by the constitution be carried out without delay;
  • providing that some executive powers may be delegated by one organ of state to another;
  • defining certain terms used in the text of the constitution; and,
  • as the Constitution is published in all eleven official languages, providing that the English text is authoritative in the event of a conflict.

Chapter 14 also repeals the Interim Constitution and refers to Schedule 6 to govern the process of transition to the new constitution. Finally, it gives the Constitution its formal title, "Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996," and defines the schedule for its commencement, under which the President set the date of commencement for most sections, although certain sections dealing with financial matters commenced only on 1 January 1998.


  • Schedule 1, referred to in Chapter 1, describes the national flag.
  • Schedule 1A, referred to in Chapter 6, defines the geographical areas of the provinces, by reference to maps published by the Municipal Demarcation Board defining the metropolitan and district municipalities.
  • Schedule 2 contains the texts of the oaths or solemn affirmations to be sworn by political office-holders and judges.
  • Schedule 3 describes the procedure for the election of the President by the National Assembly and the election of presiding officers by legislative bodies, as well as the formula whereby seats in the National Council of Provinces are to be allocated to political parties.
  • Schedule 4 lists the "functional areas" over which Parliament and the provincial legislatures have concurrent competence to legislate.
  • Schedule 5 lists the functional areas over which the provincial legislatures have exclusive competence to legislate.
  • Schedule 6 details the transitional arrangements by which institutions existing under the previous constitution were converted into the institutions established by the new constitution. It provides for the continuation of existing laws and the assignment of their administration to the provincial governments where appropriate. It also provides for certain sections of the old constitution to continue in force despite its repeal, and subject to amendments listed in the schedule. It also includes temporary amendments to the Constitution's own text which allowed the Government of National Unity to continue until the 1999 election.
  • Schedule 7 lists the laws repealed by the new constitution, these being the interim constitution and the ten amendments made to it.


Section 74 of the Constitution provides that a bill to amend the Constitution can only be passed if at least two-thirds of the members of the National Assembly (that is, at least 267 of the 400 members) vote in favour of it. If the amendment affects provincial powers or boundaries, or if it amends the Bill of Rights, at least six of the nine provinces in the National Council of Provinces must also vote for it. To amend section 1 of the Constitution, which establishes the existence of South Africa as a sovereign, democratic state, and lays out the country's founding values, would require the support of three-quarters of the members of the National Assembly. There have been seventeen amendments since 1996.

Amendment Date of assent Date of commencement Brief description
First 28 August 1997 4 February 1997 (retroactive) Provided that an Acting President need not swear the oath of office again if they had previously served as Acting President. Allowed the President of the Constitutional Court to designate another judge to administer the oath of office to the President or Acting President. Extended the cut-off date for deeds which could be considered for amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 6 December 1993 to 11 May 1994.
Second 28 September 1998 7 October 1998 Extended the term of office of municipal councils from four to five years, and modified the schedule for the transformation of local government. Allowed the nomination of alternate members of the Judicial Service Commission to replace unavailable members. Allowed Parliament to assign additional powers to the Public Service Commission. Renamed the Human Rights Commission the South African Human Rights Commission.
Third 20 October 1998 30 October 1998 Allowed the demarcation of municipalities partly in one province and partly in another.

Effectively repealed by the 12th Amendment.

Fourth 17 March 1999 19 March 1999 Clarified that elections to the National Assembly and the provincial legislatures may be called either before or after the term of office of the previous Assembly or legislature has expired. Modified the formula for the allocation to parties of seats in the National Council of Provinces. Allowed the chairperson and deputy chairperson of the Financial and Fiscal Commission to be part-time members. Passed as two separate acts because of the special procedures for provincial matters which applied to some of the changes.
Sixth 20 November 2001 21 November 2001 Renamed Chief Justice to President of the Supreme Court of Appeal, and renamed President of the Constitutional Court to Chief Justice. Allowed an Act of Parliament to extend the term of office of a Constitutional Court judge. Permitted the President to appoint two Deputy Ministers from outside the National Assembly. Extended the powers of municipal councils to raise loans.
Seventh 7 December 2001 26 April 2002 / 1 December 2003 Various amendments relating to the passage of financial legislation and the financial relationship between the provincial and national governments.
Eighth 19 June 2002 20 June 2002 Allowed members of municipal councils to cross the floor, that is, to move from one political party to another without losing their seats.

Effectively repealed by the 14th and 15th Amendments.

Ninth 19 June 2002 20 June 2002 Provided for the re-allocation of seats in the National Council of Provinces after floor-crossing in provincial legislatures.

The Loss or Retention of Membership of National and Provincial Legislatures Act, 2002, which would have allowed floor-crossing in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures, was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.

Effectively repealed by the 14th and 15th Amendments.

Tenth 19 March 2003 20 March 2003 Allowed floor-crossing in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures.

Effectively repealed by the 14th and 15th Amendments.

Eleventh 9 April 2003 11 July 2003 Renamed the Northern Province to Limpopo Province. Modified the procedure for national government intervention in dysfunctional provincial governments. Expanded the powers of provincial governments to intervene in dysfunctional municipalities.
Twelfth 22 December 2005 1 March 2006 Redefined the boundaries of the provinces in terms of the district and metropolitan municipalities, and repealed the provisions inserted by the 3rd amendment which allowed for cross-boundary municipalities.

The community of Matatiele, which had been transferred from KwaZulu-Natal to the Eastern Cape, challenged the amendment before the Constitutional Court, which ruled that the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature had not allowed for the necessary public participation before approving the amendment. The court's order was suspended for eighteen months and Parliament re-enacted the changes in the 13th Amendment.

Thirteenth 13 December 2007 14 December 2007 Re-enacted the transfer of Matatiele from KwaZulu-Natal to the Eastern Cape.
Fourteenth 6 January 2009 17 April 2009 Repealed the floor-crossing provisions added by the 8th, 9th and 10th Amendments, making it impossible for a legislator to cross the floor without losing his or her seat. Passed as two separate acts because of the special procedures for provincial matters which applied to some of the changes.
Sixteenth 25 March 2009 3 April 2009 Transferred the Merafong City Local Municipality from North West province to Gauteng, reversing a change made by the 12th Amendment.
Seventeenth 1 February 2013 23 August 2013 Declared the Chief Justice to be head of the judiciary. Allowed the appointment of an acting Deputy Chief Justice. Extended the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court over non-constitutional matters. Removed the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Appeal over appeals from the Labour and Competition Appeal Courts. Restructured the High Courts as divisions of a single High Court of South Africa.

Previous constitutions

The South Africa Act 1909, an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, unified four British colonies – Cape Colony, Transvaal Colony, Orange River Colony and Natal Colony – into the Union of South Africa, a self-governing Dominion.

The Republic of South Africa Constitution Act, 1961 transformed the Union into a Republic, replacing the Queen with a State President, but otherwise leaving the system of government unchanged.

The Republic of South Africa Constitution Act, 1983 created the Tricameral Parliament, with separate houses representing white, coloured and Indian people but without representation for black people. The figurehead State President and executive Prime Minister were replaced by an executive State President.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1993 or Interim Constitution was introduced at the end of apartheid to govern the period of transition. It introduced universal adult suffrage, constitutional supremacy and a bill of rights.

See also

Notes and references

  1. "The Constitution: The certification process". Constitutional Court of South Africa. Retrieved 13 October 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Act 5 of 2005.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Barnes, Catherine; de Klerk, Eldred (2002). "South Africa's multi-party constitutional negotiation process". Owning the process: Public participation in peacemaking. Conciliation Resources. Retrieved 19 October 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Goldstone, Richard (1997). "The South African Bill of Rights". Texas International Law Journal. 32: 451–470.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Certification of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 [1996] ZACC 26, 1996 (4) SA 744, 1996 (10) BCLR 1253 (6 September 1996), Constitutional Court (South Africa)
  6. Certification of the Amended Text of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa [1996] ZACC 24, 1997 (2) SA 97, 1997 (1) BCLR 1 (4 December 1996), Constitutional Court (South Africa)
  7. The last section is numbered 243, but a section 230A was inserted after section 230 by the Sixth Amendment.
  8. S v Makwanyane 1995 (3) SA 391 (CC).
  9. Christian Lawyers Association v Minister of Health 1998 (4) SA 1113 (T).
  10. s 36(1).

External links