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8 May 1996- The story of the day that the Constitution was adopted

Constitution Hill: Leonora de Souza

Leonora de Souza

The Constitution Hill Oral History project started in 2018 as part of its work for the establishment of the forthcoming museum, that will tell the story of the making of the South African Constitution at Constitution Hill. The collection currently consists of 60 interviewees with people that had been involved in the constitution-making process, which includes well known and not so well unknown people, who have been instrumental in our constitutional journey.The interview excerpted below is from an interview I conducted with Leonora de Souza, an amazing woman who was part of the administration of the Constitutional Assembly, which was formed from the newly elected Parliament, and tasked with writing the Constitution in collaboration with the people of South Africa. The Constitutional Assembly had two years (1994-1996) to present a new constitution to the country. There were moments when it was doubtful whether the deadline would be met. There were many deadlocks and tensions, however, ultimately the constitutional drafters were able to find common ground and adopt the new Constitution with an 87% majority.

Constitution Hill: The South African Parliament

The South African Parliament

Leonora, who was part of the Constitutional Assembly’s Public Relations Officers, had this to say about the day the Constitution was adopted.

“I was the PR officer. I was part of the protocol to get Madiba into the chamber of Parliament for the adoption of the Constitution.  I was also coordinating the event from a bigger picture. So, we had planned it a few days earlier. We had planned what was going to happen on that day; the members of Parliament would go into the chambers of Parliament, and they would each do their speech and come outside to then reveal a mural dedicated to the Constitution and a group picture would be taken. Leading up to the adoption of the Constitution, we ended up leaving Parliament at 2 o’clock in the morning and we were back at about half past four- Basically we went home to freshen up.  I think a lot of the Constitutional Assembly members did the same. We were exhausted. The day before the adoption of the Constitution, we worked throughout that night.

Constitution Hill: Inside The Constitutional Court of South Africa.

Inside The Constitutional Court of South Africa.

That morning of May 8th, we had worked nearly right through the night, before placing the final touches to the Constitution. We were exhausted, however, there was an air of expectations and palpable happiness. It felt like we were living in a time of Camelot, you could sense that this was the beginning of something new, the beginning of a new chapter for us who were a part of it and hopefully for the citizens of South Africa. That day, we opened Parliament to the people, and they came in- school children, normal citizens; all lined up in the precinct of the parliament.

 Madiba was supposed to walk out of Tuynhuys and walk into Parliament through the front.  That morning, we had to convince him not to go out the front door of Tuynhuys because there were a lot of people, he had to go through the back. The gallery was full, the people in the chamber knew something special was going to happen.

Not only was it the adoption of the Constitution that happened that day, it was the same day that Thabo Mbeki shared his I am an African” speech a, which brought about an enlightenment in people’s minds of accepting their African-ness no matter who they are. It was also the basis staring a new law for us as South Africans based on our African-ness and our oneness.”

The full interview will be available for viewing on the upcoming website dedicated to the story of the making of the Constitution which will be launched later in the year.

If you have any memories of the day that the Constitution was adopted and of Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech – please write to us at

 info@constitutionhilltrust.org

About the author

Lwando is an attorney and a writer and founder of @Including_Society exploring the interaction between race, gender, history and popular culture. She is also a trustee of the Constitutional Court Trust and a prime ambassador for social justice causes.

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