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map courtesy CIA World Factbook; click for enlargement Constitution, Government & Legislation

Following the 1994 elections, South Africa was governed under an interim constitution. This constitution required the Constituent Assembly (CA) to draft and approve a permanent constitution by May 9, 1996. After review by the Constitutional Court and intensive negotiations within the CA, a revised draft was certified by the Constitutional Court on December 2, 1996. President Nelson Mandela signed the new constitution into law on December 10, and it entered into force on February 3, 1997.

The Government of National Unity (GNU) established under the interim constitution ostensibly remained in effect until the 1999 national elections. The parties originally comprising the GNU -- the ANC, the NP, and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) -- shared executive power. On June 30, 1996, the NP withdrew from the GNU to become part of the opposition.

The Parliament consists of two houses -- the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces -- which are responsible for drafting the laws of the republic. The National Assembly also has specific control over bills relating to monetary matters. The current 400-member National Assembly was retained under the new constitution, although the constitution allows for a range of between 350 and 400 members. The Assembly is elected by a system of "list proportional representation." Each of the parties appearing on the ballot submits a rank-ordered list of candidates. The voters then cast their ballots for one party.

Seats in the Assembly are allocated based on the percentage of votes each party receives. In the 1999 elections, the ANC won 266 seats in the Assembly, the DP 38, the IFP 34, the NNP, 28, the UDM 14, and other groups won the remaining 20.

The National Council of Provinces (NCOP) consists of 90 members, 10 from each of the nine provinces. The NCOP replaced the former Senate as the second chamber of Parliament and was created to give a greater voice to provincial interests. It must approve legislation that involves shared national and provincial competencies as defined by an annex to the constitution. Each provincial delegation consists of six permanent and four rotating delegates.

The president is the head of state. Following the June 2, 1999 elections, the National Assembly elected Thabo Mbeki president. The president's responsibilities include assigning cabinet portfolios, signing bills into law, and serving as commander in chief of the military. The president must work closely with the deputy president and the cabinet. There are currently 28 posts in the cabinet, 25 of which are held by the ANC and three by the IFP.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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Courts & Judgments

The third arm of the central government is an independent judiciary. The Constitutional Court is the highest court for interpreting and deciding constitutional issues while the Supreme Court of Appeal is the highest court for nonconstitutional matters. Most cases are heard in the extensive system of High Courts and Magistrates Courts. The constitution's bill of rights provides for due process including the right to a fair, public trial within a reasonable time of being charged and the right to appeal to a higher court. The bill of rights also guarantees fundamental political and social rights of South Africa's citizens.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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Legal Profession

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Study Law in South Africa

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Correspondents' Reports

JURIST's South Africa Correspondent is Andries Cilliers, founding Dean of Law, University of Port Elizabeth, retired.

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Andries Cilliers, founding Dean of Law, University of Port Elizabeth, retired