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Big Step for South Africa

South Africa's climb toward full democracy and social equity got firmer footing this week with enactment of a new Constitution. President Nelson Mandela signed the document in a ceremony at Sharpeville, the scene of one of apartheid's worst tragedies in 1960, when 69 black protesters were massacred.

Ideas for a post-apartheid national charter gradually took shape over the last six years, as South Africa's various political parties and ethnic communities negotiated a new social contract. The actual writing was done by an elected assembly over the past two years.

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Earlier this year, an initial version of the Constitution was sent back to its drafters by the country's high court, which wanted some relatively minor corrections. That caused a few tremors, but the revisions were quickly made and the court promptly approved them.

The final document gives South Africa one of the world's most liberal blueprints for democracy. Reflecting the long deprivation of black South Africans, the Constitution spells out rights to adequate housing, food, water, education, and health care. The guarantee against discrimination specifies race, gender, sexual orientation, age, pregnancy, or marital status.

The Constitution bolsters the new South Africa being erected by Mr. Mandela and his partners in government. Also important is the ongoing work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which hopes to expose, then put to rest, the country's dark past. The commission's official deadline for issuing amnesty to those willing to tell of their involvement in officially sanctioned violence is Sunday, though it may be extended.

There's no way to quickly right every historic wrong in South Africa. The residents of its blighted townships will feel even better about the new era as services such as water, housing, and education are upgraded in accord with the Constitution. Dissent remains vigorous. Members of the Zulu political party, Inkatha, aren't entirely happy with the new charter, though they have agreed to live by it. South Africa's democratic experiment is still young, but sturdy.

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