Tricameral Parliament

The Tricameral Parliament was the name given to the South African parliament and its structure from 1984 to 1994. While still entrenching the political power of the White section of the South African population (or, more specifically, that of the National Party) (NP), it did give a limited political voice to the country's Coloured and Indian population groups. The majority Black population group was still excluded, however.

The Tricameral Parliament can trace its origin back to 1981, when the Senate was replaced with the President's Council (Afrikaans: Presidentsraad), which was an advisory body consisting of sixty nominated members from the White, Coloured, Indian and Chinese population groups.

Following a request by P.W. Botha, the President's Council presented a set of proposals in 1982 for constitutional and political reform. This proposal called for the implementation of "power sharing" between the White, Coloured and Indian communities. The right wing of the NP was very unhappy about this proposal and a group of its MPs, led by Dr. Andries Treurnicht, a cabinet minister and the leader of the NP in the Transvaal province, broke away to form the Conservative Party (CP) in order to fight for a return to apartheid in its original form.

However, Botha continued to be in favour of implementing the President's Council proposal and in 1983 the NP government introduced a new constitutional framework. This framework proposed a parliament with three separately elected chambers:

  • A 178-member White "House of Assembly" (Afrikaans; "Volksraad"), which was in effect the existing lower house of Parliament.
  • An 85-member (Coloured) "House of Representatives" (Afr; "Raad van Verteenwoordigers")
  • A 45-member (Indian) "House of Delegates" (Afr; "Raad van Afgevaardigdes").

Each of these three chambers would have power over the "own affairs" (as it was termed) of the population group it represented, such as education, social welfare, housing, local government, arts, culture and recreation.

"General affairs", such as defence, finance, foreign policy, justice, law and order, transport, commerce and industry, manpower, internal affairs, and agriculture would require approval from all three chambers, after consideration by joint standing committees.

Furthermore, the framework proposed that the government would be led by an executive State President, which would be selected by an 88-member electoral college. This college would be composed of 50 Whites, 25 Coloureds and 13 Indians, each group chosen by its respective house in parliament. The State President, who was given very broad executive power, would then appoint a Cabinet of ministers who would be in charge of "general affairs" as well as Ministers' Councils for each of the three parliamentary chambers to manage their "own affairs".

Cases of disagreements between the three houses of Parliament on specific legislation would be resolved by the President's Council. According to the constitutional proposal, this council would consist of 60 members – 20 members appointed by the House of Assembly, 10 by the House of Representatives, five by the House of Delegates and 25 directly by the State President.

Although ostensibly based on population figures, the numerical composition of the electoral college and the President's Council chambers meant that the National Party in power in the White House of Assembly could not be outvoted by the combined Coloured and Indian representatives.

In addition, the proposed constitution still made no provision for the representation of Black South Africans, as the NP still claimed that they belonged in their respective homelands, in which they could exercise their political rights.

In order to approve the proposed constitution, a referendum among White voters was held on 2 November 1983. Both the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), which objected to the exclusion of Blacks, as well as the CP, which objected to the participation of Coloureds and Indians, campaigned for a "No" vote. The conservative opposition to the reforms used banners with the text "Rhodesia voted yes - vote no!". reflecting on the transformation to majority rule in Rhodesia.[1]

However, many PFP followers and parts of the anti-government English language press supported the new constitution as "a step in the right direction". Consequently the "Yes" vote won the referendum by a wide margin, with 1,360,223 votes in favour (66.3%) and 691,577 against (33.7%). The turnout was 76%. The proposed constitution was consequently enacted by parliament as the Republic of South Africa Constitution Act of 1983.

The proposed elections for the House of Representatives and House of Delegates in August 1984 ran into heavy opposition. The United Democratic Front (UDF) was formed by a number of (mainly pro-African National Congress) community organisations and trade unions in order to oppose and boycott these elections. Nevertheless, although the election boycott was widely supported, the new constitution did come into effect and the 1984 South African general elections were held.

P.W. Botha was subsequently reelected as State President by the electoral college in 1989.

The Indian and Coloured chambers of the Tricameral Parliament suffered from a crisis of credibility with election boycotts leading to notoriously low turnouts (the 1984 House of Delegates election achieved only a 16.2% poll.[2] Elected officials in these houses were sometimes scorned for participating in the apartheid system. In 1987, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, the leader of the opposition in the White chamber, quit parliamentary politics as he saw it as increasingly irrelevant to South Africa's political future.

In 1994, ten years after the Tricameral Parliament was formed, one of the last pieces of legislation it passed was the Interim Constitution of 1993, which paved the way for the first non-racial elections that were held on 27 April of that year.

The Tricameral Parliament was housed in a new building, designed and constructed for that purpose, only a short distance from the Houses of Parliament. Currently (2009) the National Assembly is housed in the building of the Tricameral Parliament while the National Council of Provinces is housed in the old Houses of Parliament. The decor of the current National Assembly still retains the theme incorporating wooden panels of tessellating sets of three triangles.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^

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