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How do we mark the 65th anniversary of the Freedom Charter?

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How do we mark the 65th anniversary of the Freedom Charter?

Photo by Madelene Cronje/New Frame
Raymond Suttner

22nd June 2020

By: Raymond Suttner

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This Friday 26 June marks the 65th anniversary of the adoption of the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People, the culminating moment of a long process of consultation over the type of South Africa people wanted to see, after the ending of apartheid.  How do we understand it now?

The Freedom Charter has always had a revolutionary character, insofar as it dared to speak on behalf of all of the “people of South Africa” at a time when only whites were enfranchised and the notion of black people designating themselves as part of or in fact the majority component of “the people” subverted the notion of who comprised South Africa of the time.

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Its opening clause has more than one feature that bears relevance to South Africa 65 years after its adoption. It includes:

“We the people of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know:

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“That South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people….”

This was very audacious in 1955 and it led to a Treason Trial, lasting over four years, initially with 156 accused people, until 1961, when all were acquitted. The state tried and failed to depict the Charter as a plan to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat.

It was not that type of revolutionary document, but the Charter was revolutionary (unless we restrict ourselves to fundamentalist class definitions) in the context of upending white minority rule - and ensuring rule by the people as a whole, who would elect their own representatives to govern them.

There have been times when references to the Freedom Charter were very sectarian, being attacked and defended from the left and right. Initially some who objected to the notion that South Africa belonged to “all who live in it, black and white” disputed the claims of non-Africans, but especially whites to be part of South Africa. The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) broke away from the ANC on this basis and was formed as an Africanist organisation, (though it was not in fact racist and later admitted non-Africans and even whites as members). The Charter continued to evoke opposition, on this basis from Black Consciousness (BC) followers who echoed the opposition of the Africanists of the 1950s “To whom does Afrika belong? It has been asked. “Do stolen goods belong to a thief and not to their owner?” “It is an historical fallacy to say South Africa belongs to everybody: both oppressor and oppressed, robber and robbed. Azania is not a prostitute that belongs to everybody all the time…” (See Raymond Suttner, The Freedom Charter – The People’s Charter in the 1980s. TB Davie Memorial Lecture, 1984, page 19. A version that was republished in an academic journal, is available on request).

Open public debate ground to a halt with the banning of the ANC and PAC in 1960, the SACP having been declared illegal, 10 years earlier. The atmosphere of illegality and the threat of repression was not conducive to debate and openness. The ANC and SACP did however discuss the meanings of the Charter in the context of other exiled or underground discussions.

But inside the country the Soweto 1976 Uprising signified a new generation who grew up, generally without direct links to the banned organisations. There was also the re-emergence of militant trade union activity that would become a significant factor in the years ahead.

The boldness of the youth paved the way for a reopening of the public space and re-emergence of popular organisations in the late 1970s. Some of these were allied to the ANC and the Freedom Charter, some others were either with BC or “workerist” orientations, that is emphasising primarily class factors in order to pave the way for socialism.


In the 1980s, I remember how the Charter was at the centre of the battle for allegiance between contending anti-apartheid forces over what the Charter was to mean. But it was also one of the dividing lines within the UDF and other ANC-aligned organised forces. When I wrote on this in that period, my object was not merely to find the truth, but to build broad and mass unity among oppressed people and democratic whites. Ideas were important then and allegiance to the Charter signified where one stood in relation to apartheid but also in relation to other strands of liberation, which we did not always recognise as fully legitimate. That was why many of these disagreements degenerated into inter-organisational physical attacks. I remember, as a UDF leader, being asked to speak to the Soweto Youth Congress (Soyco) in 1985, about conflict with followers of BC, stressing that we wanted to win people over by convincing them of the ideas we advanced not through pummelling them into submission. Many were unconvinced and saw the battle of ideas as an extension of armed struggle.

Interpreting the Charter in 2020

Today, 65 years after its adoption, how should we discuss the Freedom Charter? Personally, I am not in favour of ticking boxes, in the sense of asking whether the ANC-led government implemented this or that, and whether or not the ANC has been “true” to the ideals of the Charter. What the words of the Freedom Charter mean are not set in stone, frozen in the year 1955. The document needs to be understood contextually. It needs to be understood within the conditions in which we find ourselves. What South Africa’s distinguished liberation theologian, Father Albert Nolan says of religious texts is applicable. The gospel is not meant to be interpreted by the letter, he argues, but its spirit must be carried through with due regard to changing contexts. (A Nolan, God in South Africa, (David Philip, Cape Town, 1988, p8).

Likewise, the Freedom Charter must now be addressed in relation to a number of questions that had not arisen then or were not critical issues in the same way as they are today. We have also learnt a lot in the last 65 years that ought to influence our understanding, from political experiments that succeeded or failed. Furthermore, what is possible to achieve, in terms of bettering the lives of all has been qualitatively increased due to scientific advancement. It is now possible to banish hunger and that it has not happened is a scandal for the world at large, including South Africa.

The question of peace and non-violence

The Freedom Charter speaks of peace from its very first words and this is part of an international trend of the time where the achievement and sustaining of peace was integrally connected to respecting and advancing human rights. But South Africa is a very macho country and the principle of non-violence has never been adequately instilled into the imagination of many South Africans. One has the example of state violence at the top with the statements of Minister of Police, Bheki Cele and others who have held that office like Fikile Mbalula. The failure to respect the life and wellbeing of all is one of the reasons why there is aggression aplenty in public life and violence throughout society, including the school system, in rich and poor schools.

Violence and aggression are signifiers of being a “real man” in South Africa, rather than qualities like caring and compassion. Gender-based violence, is of course, intimately linked with violent masculinities, present throughout this environment.

The words “care” and “compassion” do not appear in the Freedom Charter though a number of words suggest it. The masculinist word “brotherhood” (in the vocabulary of the time where references to men were taken to include women) for example, is a reference to living together with mutual respect and concern:

“That our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities…”

“All”

The word "all" is continually used in the Charter, and it is echoed in the constitution which refers constantly to “everyone”. Practices of xenophobia, a virus deeply infecting the ANC and government, are a repudiation of the values of both the Charter and the Constitution.

The Charter is a “people’s document” and the Constitution is a legal document emanating from parliament. But both documents advance the message of universalism, that this land belongs not just to those born in South Africa or citizens but to all who live in it - no matter from where they emanate. In this understanding, freedom is indivisible and belongs to every person.

Equality and policing

Among the early words of the Charter are these: “That our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality”.

That reference to inequality not only continues to be relevant but has been demonstrated to be valid during the lockdown, where spatial apartheid continues and has rendered those living in the poorest areas, still primarily black people and the poor, subject to violence, indeed brutality. They are not enjoying the same quality of liberty as those of us in the more comfortable areas. They do not enjoy equality nor their birthright to peace.

The Charter envisaged a different type of police and military. Under the heading of equality before the law, it declares: “The police force and army shall be open to all on an equal basis and shall be the helpers and protectors of the people.” [My emphasis]. How far has the ANC-led government strayed from these words, when the Ministers of Police and Defence try to justify outright abuse of the vulnerable, and the president is generally silent?

The Freedom Charter and how we understand democracy

In the years after 1955 other ideas about the type of democracy to which people aspired, came to the fore. The Charter placed emphasis on the franchise and rightly so, because denial of the vote was an important signifier of white domination. In the 1980s, when I interviewed the late Ma Dorothy Nyembe – who spent 18 years in prison and had been mentored by Chief Albert Luthuli – she sat on the grass at Phoenix settlement outside Durban, which was originally established by Mahatma Gandhi in 1904. She told me, “All the demands of the Charter point straight to Parliament.”

She then sang (what I have quoted before):

Chief Luthuli, Dr Naicker (three times)

Yibona ‘bonsimel’ epalamende

These will represent us in Parliament.

Dr Dadoo umhol’wethu (three times)

Dr Dadoo is our leader

Uyena ozosihol’ epalamende

Will lead us in Parliament

Dr Dadoo umhol’ wethu (three times)

Dr Dadoo our leader

Uyena ozosihol’ sisepalamende

He’s the one to lead us in Parliament.

(From: Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin, 30 Years of the Freedom Charter. Ravan Press, 1986, pp. 252-3. I do not use the later edition, 50 years of the Freedom Charter, Unisa Press: 2006, because it contains errors in the isiZulu).

In the 1980s, however, the people’s power period enriched the understanding of democracy, where it was argued that the type of freedom to which people aspired, would not simply be periodic voting but continuous political activity by the populace. Murphy Morobe, acting publicity secretary of the UDF, wrote in 1987:

“What is possible in the future depends on what we are able to create and sustain now. A democratic South Africa will not be fashioned only after transference of political power to the majority has taken place.… The creation of a democratic South Africa can only become a reality with the participation of millions of South Africans in the process – a process which has already begun in the townships, factories and schools of our land. … Our democratic aim… is control over every aspect of our lives, and not just the right (important as it is) to vote for a central government every four to five years.” (See Murphy Morobe, ‘Towards a People’s Democracy: The UDF View’, Review of African Political Economy, 40, 1 (1987), pp. 81–95).

That notion of self-empowerment has been sidelined since 1994 and it needs to be taken up and incorporated in the ways that we understand the central Freedom Charter call: “The People Shall Govern!” That demand came to be understood in more than one way - both representative democracy and popular power. We need to continuously explore how people can be empowered to act for themselves and control their own lives. That means ways of practising and using their own power, through and beyond the ballot box.

The Freedom Charter cannot remain relevant if it is treated as a document from which no deviation is possible. It must be a basis for debate, including a recognition that some clauses may no longer be valid. That is part of democracy and what those involved in the Charter’s creation would have wanted.

Raymond Suttner has written on and been involved in many debates on the Freedom Charter. He is a professor affiliated to the University of Johannesburg and UNISA and a senior research associate at the Centre for Change. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing to write memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the periods through which he has lived.

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