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20/12/2017 08:56 SAST | Updated 20/12/2017 09:08 SAST

Negotiating The Constitution With Cyril: Doing Battle With Old Ghosts

Ramaphosa never made me feel like his "deputy". He treated me like his associate -- his companion.

Mike Hutchings / Reuters
A tired Constitutional Assembly chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa (L) and deputy chairperson Leon Wessels (R) listen to submissions as they work on into the night in an effort to break the deadlocks on South Africa's new Constitution.

Cyril Ramaphosa's election as chairperson and my election as deputy chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly (CA) were pleasant experiences. The CA would be the joint session of the national assembly and the senate -- charged to write the final constitution. This was the job for me. I was excited. This challenge invigorated me.

When Cyril and I met for the very first time in his office, I said to him: "I know the CA elected me as deputy chairperson and not as a joint chairperson. I was taught that the task of the deputy chairperson is to help the chairperson. That is exactly what I am going to do; I am going to support you to ensure that we finish our task within the prescribed time limit of two years."

Howard Burditt / Reuters
South Africa's constitutional architects Roelf Meyer (L), Leon Wessels and Cyril Ramaphosa (R) listen as former president Thabo Mbeki addresses the Parliament on the 10th anniversary of the Constitution in Cape Town May 8, 2006.

That is exactly what happened. There was a great relationship between Cyril and me: I didn't discuss politics with him, I didn't negotiate NP [National Party] matters with him, we didn't socialise together -- we worked together to write the South Africa Constitution.

Two year later, on 8 May 1996, at 12:08 -- eight minutes later than planned -- the CA adjourned. The job had been done. This had been the most memorable experience of my political career. The manner Cyril made me feel part of that CA team is something I will always treasure. He never made me feel like his "deputy". He treated me like his associate -- his companion.

Two very interesting offices where allocated to Cyril and me. In the old House Assembly we were separated from our party colleagues. Cyril moved into the office formerly used by the head of state. That was the very same office in which John Vorster, 20 years earlier, had made uninspiring comments about the political future of South Africa to a group of young people I had organised to meet with him. They left that meeting disheartened. Now an ANC leader was being asked to lead a process to ensure that the legitimate political aspirations of all South Africans would be accommodated in the Constitution from that office.

Next to this office was a committee room, where the head of state used to receive delegations when Parliament was in session. I had been in that very same committee room where PW Botha received delegations from the House of Delegates and the House of Representatives -- he scolded them because they didn't take a firm stand against the communist onslaught and they didn't support him when he pushed further security legislation through Parliament.

ANNA ZIEMINSKI via Getty Images
Cyril Ramaphosa (sitting R), chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly (CA), and Leon Wessels, deputy chairperson (L) and members of Parliament, sign copies of the amended constitution in Parliament, on October 11, 1996, in Cape Town.

It was in that office that the executive of the CA met every week to manage the CA process so that it would remain on track.

Often when I visited Ramaphosa in his office or sat in the committee room under his stewardship, I could see Vorster and Botha in my mind's eye; sometimes I had mock debates with them about the current events. I frequently had to pinch myself to appreciate how profound the changes were that I was privileged to witness at close range.

My office was immediately above Ramaphosa's office. Earlier occupants of that office had been NP heavyweights: Fanie Botha, Piet Koornhof and FW de Klerk. Their ghosts were not as active as the ghosts in Cyril's office.

The offices that Ramaphosa and I occupied far from our colleagues probably contributed to the fact that we were both looking for other pastures when our task at the CA was done.