Nepali Times
Constitution Supplement
Learning from South Africa


PATH TO PEACE: Gagan Thapa present a Buddha figure recently in Johannesburg to South African army general Roland de Vries, who played a key peace-building role in post-apartheid South Africa.
"What do you expect from this visit to South Africa?" the organiser asked us. Everyone had a different answer, but one thing we all wanted was to meet Nelson Mandela, known throughout the world as a symbol for political freedom and equality. Sadly his ill health meant this was not possible, but we did visit the Apartheid Museum in Soweto, which told the story of his struggle against the racist regime.

We were 19 youth leaders from different political parties, including some Constituent Assembly members. During the nine-day program in Pretoria and Johannesburg, we learned about the South African constitution writing process, the role of the political parties in establishing democracy, the part played by the constitution commission and political institutions in safeguarding the constitution, and the nature of the federal government structure.

We interacted with people who were directly involved in the movement against apartheid, as well as researchers from academic institutions and experts who worked on the peace process and writing the constitution.

The first day began with a talk by Ibrahim Ibrahim, an ANC veteran of the fight against apartheid, and Roelf Meyer, a former defence minister in the apartheid regime and secretary-general of the National Party.

"In 1986, when I was deputy police minister, Ibrahim was kidnapped from Switzerland," Meyer told us. "The journey that had begun in animosity is now moving ahead in companionship."

Once political foes from extreme opposite ends of the political spectrum, Meyer and Ibrahim are now close friends, actively working together in the ANC. They spoke to us about peace and their experience of the constitution writing process in South Africa.

One might wonder how it was possible for these two men to work together. Several times they came close to falling out but they said two things kept them focussed.

First, there was the trust between them. They believed each side in the negotiations had honest intentions to take the peace process forward to a logical conclusion, even though they had different priorities and ideologies.

Second, each was prepared, at difficult moments, to try and see any dispute from the other's perspective in an attempt to unravel the problem.

In contrast to Nepal, the South African journey from the formation of a constituent assembly to the promulgation of a new constitution was fairly straightforward because most contentious issues had already been resolved in a 36-point agreement before the CA was created. A constitutional court, independent of the political parties, was established to oversee the writing process, which meant parties' partisan positions on constitutional issues became less important.
This in turn meant there was more time for public discussion about the constitution. For this, the local media, constitutional experts and international comparisons were important.

There is a lot that Nepali assembly members can learn from the South African experience. Boundaries of provinces should not be decided too hurriedly and randomly. We need to have extensive deliberations with experts and reach consensus among the parties. We should not look only to past experiences, but also to future aspirations, otherwise we may pay a heavy price.

In the movement against apartheid, everyone understood that colour could not be the basis on which to build a new South Africa. They told us proudly: "The constitution of South Africa does not recognise black or white; it knows only African citizens."

We also learnt from the ANC experience that although the success of political parties depends on leadership, their organisational management and ideology are equally important. The ANC's 52nd convention passed a statute giving women 50 per cent of the positions within the party as well as in all levels of government. There was no provision for this in the constitution, but this statute ultimately ensured that women received equal representation.

As for the integration of opposing combatants, the first important step was to build confidence between the two armies. In South Africa, they found it worked best if they looked at problems from the perspective of the other side or, as they put it, 'analyse the situation, walk slowly but don't change direction'.

Ultimately, the peace process in South Africa was not easy. For Nepal, it is important that we look at their peace building and constitution-writing experiences to learn what worked and what didn't. But we should not make the mistake of imitating them, as each society has its own specific characteristics and each peace process must follow its own particular path.

Gagan Thapa is a NC member of the Constituent Assembly

Constitution calendar

30 November-15 December, 2008
Formation of 14 subject committees and nomination of vice chairman of the CA

16 December-11 February, 2009
* Drawing up of action plans for each committee
* Civic education, training and orientation begins
* Opinion gathering from the public

12 February-13 April, 2009
* Subject committees complete concept papers

14 April-14 June, 2009
* Preliminary drafts from committees to be tabled in the CA

15 June-16 September, 2009
* Draft constitution prepared, incorporating suggestions from the CA and subject committees, then tabled in the assembly

17 September-30 September, 2009
* Final draft of the constitution to be published in the gazette for public comment
* Drawing up of action plans for responding to public feedback

1 October-15 October, 2009
* Extensive discussion on draft constitution
* Public feedback to be gathered by CA members

16 December-14 January, 2010
* Report on collected suggestions to be tabled at the assembly

15 January-13 March, 2010
* The full CA to discuss the report
* Constitution bill to be tabled in the CA, incorporating feedback
* The bill to be discussed in the CA
* CA members to table amendments

14 March-14 May, 2010
* After article by article discussion, all articles and sub-articles of the constitution to be finalised

15 May-28 May, 2010
* Endorsement of a complete constitution with its preamble
* Signing off by the CA members
* The CA chair to authenticate the constitution
* The new constitution to be handed over to the president in a formal ceremony, where he will announce its promulgation

Gift horses

A fleet of buses that India donated to transport CA members between Singha Darbar and the BICC are still not being used. Assembly members refuse to ride the 32-seater buses because they are unhappy about the conspicuously painted 'Gifted from the Government of India' on their sides. They believe that such a visible proof of foreign involvement will demean the constitution-drafting process. However, employees at the secretariat claim that the inability of the government to provide facilities led them to ask India for help. Indian embassy officials say that the secretariat requested 50 buses, cars and jeeps. The buses were the first to be provided. One compromise: erase the Indian flag and the prominent sign.

"We can rock the CA session easily"

Basanti Jha, (TMLP)

When did you join politics?

I was born in India. In 1971, women had no right to vote. Then, I thought of entering politics. I am also president of the Women Awareness Project. I became more actively involved in politics after the Madhes movement.

When do you think the process of constitution writing will start?
There is no sign of the process starting soon. In over six months, we have not even thought of it. It has sent out a wrong message to the villages. We have not been able to elect a vice chair of the CA, let alone begin writing the constitution. This position is allocated for a woman and no party is showing any interest in it.

What are the issues of women to be met immediately?
A single woman will get an allowance when she is 60. But I think she should be eligible to get the allowance when she becomes single. Madhesi women are plagued by the dowry system. They are also illiterate. The state should pay attention to these problems first.

Which side are you on regarding party whips?
Our own party whip is unacceptable to us regarding women's rights. If the new constitution is written against the interests of women, women CA members will stand united. The 197 women members are enough to rock the CA session easily.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)