Riding the transitional rollercoaster: the shifting relationship between civil society and the Constitution in post-apartheid South Africa

 “We have constitutional romanticism in the country, where people feel that the Constitution is above criticism …people aren't recognising the historically-situated nature of the document and how the document may well need change in order to address future challenges that society is facing.” 

Interview with Jane Duncan 

This report is the product of a research project undertaken by the South African History Archive in 2014, exploring the changing relationship between civil society and the South African Constitution, as part of a broader SAHA archival collection project on the Constitution in advance of marking 20 years of the Constitution in 2016.

“The lessons that we have drawn … [are] that you can have victories in a court of law, but it is still a struggle to realise that victory. My experience, which has been shared by most of the poor people out there, is that we feel … alienated, you know, side-lined.”

Interview with Mashao Chauke

Drawing on over 30 hours of interviews with civil society activists, community leaders and public interest lawyers, this report traces the constitutional journey over the past two decades to reflect upon:

  • the state of the constitutional state
  • the impact of the Constitution on the work of civil society
  • the changing attitudes towards, and levels of trust in, the Constitution, and;
  • the extent to which the Constitution is accessible to civil society as a tool for transformation.


 “I think most of us thought it was the duty of somebody else from somewhere else to make sure that the things that appear in the Constitution really talk to, you know, the day to day lives of ordinary people.”

Interview with S’bu Zikode


This report is intended as a catalyst, to stimulate debate around how civil society could be engaging with the constitutional project moving forward.


“I think now there’s quite a kind of a distance between civil society, or people who are active in civil society organisations and the question of the constitution. I don’t think the constitution has a central... place in people’s consideration for socio-economic change.” 

Interview with John Appolis

Download the report (5MB) (you will need to register or log in to download the report)

Access the interview transcripts in the project archival collection