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WORLD PERSPECTIVE | South Africa

Scramble for Post-Apartheid Laws Wins Mixed Reviews

February 04, 2000|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When President Thabo Mbeki addresses the opening session of Parliament today, the country's 454 legislators should be forgiven if they do not appear well rested.

Parliament officially adjourned in mid-December, but since then members have been busy dismantling the final building blocks of apartheid. The highly contentious task has kept some legislators working around the clock.

"They had to meet the deadline," said government spokesman Sputnik Ratau.

South Africa's post-apartheid constitution requires the legislature to enact four far-reaching laws by today that codify democratic principles in the 1996 document's bill of rights and finance section. The two houses of Parliament passed the laws last week, and Mbeki signed them Wednesday. A parliamentary committee will decide when they go into effect.

The new legislation represents the final legal assault on the apartheid system of racial separation. The former white-minority regime's policies and practices have been dismantled piecemeal over the past decade. But until now, they had not been replaced by comprehensive laws banning discrimination, providing affirmative action in state contracts, guaranteeing access to public information and allowing challenges to the government's administrative decisions.

"We are turning on the light to bring to an end the secrecy and silence that characterized decades of apartheid rule and administration," said Justice Minister Penuell Maduna.

Yet for all the significance surrounding the new laws, there is a lot of grumbling. In some instances, critics say, the legislation is fundamentally flawed and is likely to be contested in the Constitutional Court. Other complaints are about sloppy writing of important provisions, due in large part to the last-minute rush.

"There are mistakes in the bills, and there are a lot of things that are going to be challenged," said Thabani Masuku of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. "It is significant, however, that Parliament has taken its constitutional responsibility seriously. They really worked to meet the deadline. The other option was to amend the constitution to give themselves more time."

Maduna and others from the ruling African National Congress have promised to be reasonable in dealing with start-up problems. Parliament has already added several important amendments to the laws in response to public concerns.

The list of doubters, nonetheless, remains long.

Big business fears that the anti-discrimination legislation will scare away foreign investors by creating costly rules and penalties for employers. The law requires employers to prove their innocence in newly established "equality courts" when accused of discrimination.

The insurance industry is particularly concerned that it could face lawsuits by people who pay higher premiums because of age, health or other risk criteria. Parliament agreed to drop special protections for the poor, people without South African citizenship and those infected with HIV, but this decision will be reconsidered next year.

Civil libertarians worry about an unusual provision in the freedom-of-information law that gives government the right to demand information from citizens. Watchdog groups, moreover, object to exclusions for Cabinet members from the law's requirement that public officials respond to inquiries.

Some Afrikaners oppose the affirmative action law because it does not include disadvantaged whites. Even the obscure administrative justice law has been attacked. It is meant to ensure that bureaucrats treat citizens fairly by requiring clear explanations from officials for everything from cuts in welfare payments to increases in school fees. But critics say it is too narrow and sets too high a threshold for challenges.

"We are for change, but change for the better, not for the worse," said Tertius Delport of the opposition Democratic Party, which voted against all but the affirmative action bill.

ANC officials acknowledge that the laws include imperfections, but they attribute most of the complaints to continued resistance to black-majority rule and nostalgia for past privilege.

"You either support equality or you don't," said the ANC's Mohseen Moosa.

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