MP's sober up after a decade

2004-04-22 16:00
Cape Town - The euphoria of the first sessions has dissipated, and the frenzy of the stone-by-stone construction of a new legal edifice has abated ... after 10 years of democracy, South Africa's parliament has become "normal".

When they first arrived at the venerable parliament buildings in Cape Town in May 1994, most of the new MPs had no political experience and, in the words of Nelson Mandela, were fresh from "the bush, or from underground inside the country, or from prisons".

Their immediate task was to replace each of the segregationist laws which had spread their tentacles throughout society.

Ten years later, after adopting more than 780 new laws, they all remember those heady and often difficult early days.

"The first five years were a lot more challenging," said Patricia de Lille, the feisty head of the opposition Independent Democrats.

"We had to learn very fast, to write the new constitution."

The constitution, hailed as one of the most liberal in the world, was adopted in December 1996 after two years of impassioned debate.

It was light-years away from the laws of the apartheid era, which punished marriage and sex between the races under the notorious Immorality Act of 1950 and kept iron-fisted control over where people could live, work and congregate, and censored books and newspapers.

The new constitution explicitly forbids all discrimination, notably on grounds of sexual orientation - unusual on a homophobic continent.

"The great man, Madiba"

Godfrey Cleinwerck, 58, the sergeant-at-arms, is parliament's institutional memory.

He began his job on May 1, 1984, with the inauguration of a tricameral parliament - limited-power chambers for those of Asian descent, and those of mixed-race descent, alongside the white members' chamber. Blacks continued to be excluded.

Cleinwerck retains an indelible memory of "meeting the great man Madiba (Mandela's clan name) for the first time in the flesh" when he became the first black president in May 1994 after 342 years of white domination, starting with the arrival of Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck at Table Bay in 1652.

Mandela, who became head of state after spending 27 years in apartheid jails, "was a very friendly character," Cleinwerck said.

The new parliament took on its own character, with MPs speaking in the 11 newly official languages, instead of just English and Afrikaans, dark suits gave way to a profusion of colours, formality lost ground, and women invaded the chamber in large numbers.

Today, 123 of the 400 members of the National Assembly are women, and eight of the 26 cabinet ministers - high numbers by world standards.

Bringing to order

In the first years, the adoption of each major new law would trigger explosions of joy in the once sedate house, with members "toyi-toying", said Cleinwerck, "very proud" that he had, "in some way, contributed to the new democracy".

Now, though, the chamber is more sober, the verbal jousting more classic as Speaker Frene Ginwala demands "order" with an authoritative rap of her gravel.

Mandela's retirement in 1999 to make way for Thabo Mbeki, a pipe-smoking philosopher who spent the struggle years in exile, also contributed to the changing tenor of parliament.

"The two men have totally different styles and different ways of doing politics," noted Judith February, of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative, a Cape Town-based think tank.

De Lille of the Independent Democrats regretted the change. "We used to engage with president Mandela - he was here at least every Wednesday," she said. "Mbeki is here only every four months."

For Raenette Taljaard, who was in her last year of high school when Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and was then elected an opposition MP in 1999 at the age of 26, the difference since her schooldays is all around.

"What excites me is driving around the streets of the city. There is stability through the elections, campaigning is going on (for general elections on April 14) ... the sense that it is all inclusive. It is the normality of the elections that is just phenomenal."

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