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9 Surprising Facts You Didn't Know About South Africa

South Africa
by Amanda Machado Mar 24, 2016

1. South Africa is still the only country in the world to voluntarily abandon its nuclear weapons program.

South Africa approved the first nuclear explosives research in 1971, and three years later, then Prime Minister John Forster approved further development. This resulted in the production of six atom bombs, intended to be used only as a “deterrent,” and kept largely a secret for the next 16 years. Yet in 1989, with the international backlash against apartheid, it became clear to Prime Minister De Klerk that dismantling the nuclear program was essential to restoring South African relations with the international community.

No other country since has ever followed South Africa’s example. As de Klerk said in a piece in the Los Angeles Times, “Nuclear states continue to give lip service to the goal of nuclear disarmament, but little has been achieved in practice.” He went on to admit that “The world should realize that real security does not lie in increasing our power to destroy others; it lies in our ability to live with others on the basis of peace and justice.

2. South Africa’s constitution was one of the first in the world to allow gay marriage and ban any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Also, its section on children’s rights has higher standards than the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

South Africa’s constitution is also unique because it focuses on both negative and positive rights. Unlike many countries that focus exclusively on what can’t be done, South Africa also focuses on what can. For example, the constitution includes the right to “make decisions concerning reproduction,” “form a political party,” or “form and join a trade union.” South Africa is also one of the few countries to include socio-economic rights in its Constitution, including the right to access food, water, housing, health care, social security and education.

3. Because of this, the constitution has been acknowledged repeatedly as one of the best constitutions in the world.

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein called it “the most admirable constitution in the history of the world.” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsberg also told the New York Times, “I would not look to the U.S. Constitution, if I were drafting a Constitution in the year 2012. I might look at the Constitution of South Africa.” She went on to say that South Africa’s constitution was “a deliberate attempt to have a fundamental instrument of government that embraced basic human rights.”

4. It’s accomplished several of the world’s most monumental surgeries.

In 1967, Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first human heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. They are now the the third most common organ transplant operation in the United States. Dr. Barnard and his medical team also helped develop heterotopic, or “piggy-back,” heart transplants and helped advance medical knowledge of organ donation, brain death, and donor heart preservation.

Then, just this year, doctors in Cape Town performed the world’s first penis replacement surgery.

5. It has the highest commercial bridge bungee jump in the world.

Over 700 feet!

6. It’s also home to the largest wine cellar in the world.

The 22-hectares KWV Cellars in Paarl.

7. South Africa’s Constitutional Court has set many world precedents for justice and openness.

First, the country chose to build the new constitutional court at the former site of Number Four, the Old Fort prison in Braamfontein area of Johannesburg. The decision was made intentionally to remind current judges of the memories of the South Africa’s past, and to transform a space known for its lack of freedom to a place that symbolized democracy.

Unlike many other courts around the world, South Africa’s is also open to the public at all times. Some of the court’s design — including glass in the foyer and a narrow line of windows by the justice’s desks — are also meant to symbolize the the transperency of the court’s proceedings.

South Africa is also one of few countries that requires each judge to employ at least one clerk from a foreign country. This ensures that court decisions at least consider foreign perspectives and are informed of international opinions.

8. The judges in South Africa’s Constitutional Court are also the only judges in the world who sit at eye-level to the lawyers and audience.

They do this to create no sense of hierarchy between the judges and everyday citizens.

9. It’s the first country in the world to provide full-protection status for the Great White Shark.

South Africa did this in 1991. The US, Australia, Namibia and others followed South Africa’s lead later.

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