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Agenda: Lessons from South Africa about the need to enhance democracy

The death and the funeral of Nelson Mandela remind us of the debt we owe him for showing a different and better way of using power.

It drove me back to look again at something I had almost forgotten: the contacts between the Scottish Constitutional Convention and the South African Constitutional Convention.

I was struck by how relevant these were, not just for our work at that time, but for the debate at present on Scotland's Future.

In November 1993, just as our convention met to plan the final stages of our proposals for a Scottish Parliament, the South African Convention - led by Mandela, then ANC president, and FW DeKlerk, then still state president - took the crucial step forward of drafting a new constitution.

Our message sent to Mandela and DeKlerk, said: "As your country takes a decisive step forward towards a democratic Constitution, we send you our warmest congratulations on your astonishing achievement.

"Your work is both an inspiration and a practical lesson for us. Scotland's constitutional grievance can of course never be compared with the oppression faced by your people.

"None of us suffered imprisonment or death. If justice and democracy can win in South Africa, those of us elsewhere trying to enhance democracy should never lose heart".

We received a simple message of thanks from both, but also, significantly, an extract from DeKlerk's speech presenting the proposed new constitution, which certainly speaks with surprising relevance to Scotland.

This is what he had to say: "South Africa's constitutional history was born and bred in the British tradition, the tradition of the sovereignty of parliament. In layman's language, this means parliament is supreme.

"It can make any law regardless of whether it is just or unjust, whether it discriminates on the basis of race, sex or creed, whether or not it flies in the face of universally accepted values, whether it is right or wrong.

"The new agreed constitution turns South Africa once and for all into a 'Rechtstaat', a state where the rule of law is sovereign.

"In layman's terms, this means that every law passed in future by parliament, as well as every cabinet, has to meet with requirements of a value system of prescribed norms and principles. No law may conflict with the constitution or bill of fundamental rights.

"This is far-reaching. It changes the essence and character of our state. It places an effective limitation on the abuse of power by any majority, One day, this incisive change in our system will stand out as the most significant constitutional innovations of them all".

The new constitution was certainly a turning point, but it was made possible by something more profound. This was the vision of a rainbow nation inspired by the courage, humanity and astonishing forgiveness of one man.

We can hope the outpouring of love for Mandela will restore that kind of vision wherever it has become tarnished. A constitution does not in itself change people. It took a Mandela to do that, but the constitution sought to embody and safeguard that vision for the future.

Scotland at this crucial time needs both a vision and a firm constitutional basis.

We must see and articulate clearly the vision of the kind of nation we want to be.

For us , it will not come not from a single charismatic figure but from a rediscovery of our history and self-understanding as a nation.

But we must also begin the process of creating a constitution that embodies who we are.

It will be a constitution that, in the words of a Church of Scotland report, is "built upon philosophical foundations which are more coherent and credible than the notions that underpin the existing British constitution."

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