THE BIG READ: The right constitution
From late 1991 to early 1994, in a cavernous hall, close by what is now OR Tambo International Airport, a large, diverse and remarkable group of South Africans met to create a vision of their country's future - a future free of the horror of apartheid, of the crime of racism, a future they dreamed for themselves, for their children and for their country.
Teachers, lawyers, activists, former guerillas and soldiers worked for hours, shoulder to shoulder, as they slowly built what would become the Republic of South Africa's interim constitution. Outside the room, journalists, diplomats and activists huddled in the building's hallways and tearooms, anxious to get details of the emerging plan while across the country and the world, people followed the proceedings with hope.
While I was not in South Africa for these world-changing talks, nor for the 1994-1996 talks that drafted South Africa's current constitution, I have had the privilege to get to know many individuals who were part of the process.
As South Africa's "We the People" initiative celebrates the rights and responsibilities enshrined in the South African constitution this month, it's important to remember how much the world owes to the individuals who drafted the important documents, and how much South Africa depends on the rights, and the responsibilities, detailed in the documents they created.
At the talks, representatives of the ANC and the outgoing regime run by the National Party had very different views of the interim constitution. The ANC believed the constitution should create a government with the ability to safeguard citizens against continued inequality and unfairness, while the National Party was focused on limiting government power.
Ultimately, it took Nelson Mandela's message of working "in the spirit of a government of national unity" to create consensus. This message is carried in the language of the current constitution. The spirit of those who fought the injustices of apartheid resonates in every line: "We, the people of South Africa, recognise the injustices of our past; honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
"We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this constitution as the supreme law of the republic so as to heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights.
"Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law.
"Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations. May God protect our people.
"Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso.
"God seën Suid-Afrika. God bless South Africa.
Mudzimu fha?utshedza Afurika. Hosi katekisa Afrika."
In South Africa, the constitutional drafters deliberately turned from the country's sad history of isolation to a future of inclusiveness, framed by a document that protects the rights of citizens to prosper without discrimination. Many people consider the South African constitution to be one of the most progressive in the world.
In the US and in South Africa, citizens hold the responsibility to demand reforms, to challenge their governments on corruption, and to support institutions of democracy, including a free press. As US journalist Bill Moyers said: "Democracy works when people claim it as their own."
That's our challenge, as citizens of democracy. We hold rights, but with those rights also come responsibilities.
In South Africa, a vibrant civil society supports and upholds the constitution. Groups like the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution encourage public involvement and awareness of policy processes to ensure every citizen knows what the rights enshrined in the constitution means for them.
South Africa's Legal Resources Centre offers a special constitutional litigation unit led by senior counsel George Bizos, who was a drafter of our constitution and one of South Africa's most renowned human rights advocates.
The uniquely South African expertise in human rights law of the Legal Resources Centre is providing assistance on the continent through training lawyers on human rights litigation supported by the US Agency for International Development.
South Africa's constitution is a model for nations across the world.
It gives the world a glimpse of what a country can become when people take their own destiny in hand and focus on the interests of everyone, not just their own.
- Gips is the US ambassador to South Africa