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Changing the legislative landscape

After 1994, substantial work was done both in the public domain and behind the scenes to change South Africa’s laws.

When apartheid officially ended with the first democratic elections in 1994, the single most important task for the newly elected government was to completely transform the legislative framework of the country.

As a young democracy, South Africa’s progress in overcoming the evils of apartheid has been remarkable. Apartheid policies were included in virtually all laws of the country, affecting every sector of society. Starting afresh required repealing those laws, implementing new laws and changing the functioning of society.

A new dawn

For 25 years, South Africa’s democracy has been guided by a Constitution that is recognised as one of the best in the world. The Constitution’s most important aspect is the Bill of Rights, which forbids discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, social origin, age, religion, language and others. The Constitution became the supreme law of the country and resulted in the abolishment of many oppressive laws.

Under apartheid, people were separated along racial lines. This was largely guided by the Population Registration Act of 1950, which required every South African to be registered and classified under the groups black, white or coloured. Various social rights, political rights and education opportunities were determined by race.

The Act was repealed by Parliament in 1991, although it has remained necessary to continue to classify South Africans according to race, in order to reverse the injustices of the past through new policies such as black economic empowerment.

Abolishing geographical segregation

The creation of Bantustans was one of the major policies established under the apartheid government’s rule. Also known as “homelands”, these 10 areas were established based on the Natives Land Act of 1913, which set aside only 13 percent of land in South Africa for black residents. The Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 declared that all black Africans were citizens of independent homelands rather than of South Africa itself. Approximately eight million black people lost their citizenship.

After the 1994 elections, the Bantustans were officially abolished and the country was redivided into the nine new provinces.

Transforming the education system

The Bantu Education Act of 1953 was established in order to enforce racially separated schools and institutions of higher learning. Under this system, black youth were only equipped with the skills needed to enter the unskilled labour market.

While schools for white children were of world-class standards, a high proportion of black schools did not have running water, electricity or plumbing.

Although the Act was repealed by the Education and Training Act in 1979, some aspects of racial segregation remained. Under the new Constitution, the Education and Training Act was repealed by the South African Schools Act in 1996, which entitled all South Africans to equal access to education.

The start of a new chapter

Over the past 25 years, government has not only had to cancel oppressive laws, but introduce new laws and programmes that fulfil the aims of the Constitution.

After the creation of a new Parliament, a number of new institutions were established to uphold the provisions of the Constitution. The Constitutional Court was established in order to observe and enforce the observance of any law within South Africa. Chapter 9 institutions such as the Public Protector, Independent Electoral Commission, the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission on Gender Equality have all acted as protectors of democracy and the rights of citizens.

Since 1994, government has introduced hundreds of new pieces of legislation, many of which focus on redressing the injustices of the past. Introduced in 1994, the Reconstruction and Development Programme has been the guiding light in reversing the inequalities of apartheid through housing, water, electricity, land reform, access to healthcare and public works programmes which have improved the living standards of millions. 

New human rights, labour, land reform and social welfare laws have increased equality and improved the lives of many.

Under apartheid, the system of local government failed to meet the basic needs of most South Africans. In 2000, local municipalities were established and their functioning is guided by the Local Government Municipal Systems Act. 

Changes in South African legislation since 1994

Apartheid’s basic legal framework consisted of four acts – the Population Registration Act, The Group Areas Act, the Land Act and the Separate Amenities Act – which were abolished with the advent of democracy.

Since 1994, a total of 1 313 new acts have been introduced or amended in South Africa.