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The Tricameral Parliament was the name given to the South African parliament and its structure from 1984 to 1994, established by the South African Constitution of 1983. 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 however excluded.
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 Prime Minister 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) 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.
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.
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 with 66.3% of ballots cast. 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 to oppose and boycott these elections. Nevertheless, although the election boycott was widely supported, the new constitution did come into effect and the elections were held.
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 elections achieved only a 16.2% turnout). 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.
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.
The parliament had 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 (Afrikaans: Raad van Verteënwoordigers)
- A 45-member (Indian) House of Delegates (Afrikaans: Raad van Afgevaardigdes).
Each of these three chambers had 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 required approval from all three chambers, after consideration by joint standing committees.
The government was led by a State President. The office of Prime Minister was abolished, and its powers were de facto transferred to the State President, which was made an executive post with very broad executive powers. He was to be selected by an 88-member electoral college composed of 50 Whites, 25 Coloureds and 13 Indians, each group chosen by its respective house in parliament. The State President appointed 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 meant that the white chamber could not be outvoted by the other two chambers. Thus, the real power remained in white hands—and in practice, in the hands of Botha's National Party, which had a large majority in the white chamber. For all intents and purposes, Botha held nearly all governing power in the nation.
The constitution made no provision for the representation of Black South Africans, as the National Party still claimed that they belonged in their respective homelands, in which they could exercise their political rights. Indeed, blacks had been effectively stripped of their South African citizenship, and were instead legally considered citizens of the homelands.
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.
- Colour, confusion and concessions: the history of the Chinese in South Africa – Melanie Yap, Dianne Leong
- Whose Kith and Kin Now?, Peter Godwin, Sunday Times, 25 March 1984
- Elections in South Africa African Elections Database