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Re-reading the Freedom Charter at 60

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Duane Daws
Raymond Suttner

24th June 2015

By: Raymond Suttner


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The Freedom Charter was not the first human rights document initiated by the African National Congress (ANC), the organisation having developed a Bill of Rights in 1923. It also produced the famous “African Claims”, an adaptation of the Atlantic Charter, on the need for human rights in South Africa, in 1943. What was different about the Freedom Charter was that it was far more ambitious, not only in what it covered and its “declaratory” tone, but how it was made.

From the start, the Freedom Charter was not conceived by a committee of prestigious people, as had been the case with  “African Claims” and various international documents. Nor was it intended as a document of the ANC or the ANC and its allies alone, and some effort was expended to try to draw in the Liberal Party, amongst others. That party was divided on the issue, as Professor Hilda Kuper noted, although they ultimately decided not to participate in the Congress of the People Campaign to establish the Charter.


The focus on June 26, 1955, as the date when the Congress of the People adopted the Freedom Charter tends to obscure the fact that the Congress of the People was not a single event but a campaign extending over more than a year for hearing people’s grievances and aspirations and gathering their demands. These would represent the type of South Africa they wanted to see instead of that which they experienced under apartheid oppression.  Through this campaign “Freedom Volunteers” – a category of people adapted from the Defiance Campaign of 1952, referring to those who were considered the most disciplined cadres – would be sent to cities, towns and villages throughout the country to hear what aggrieved people had to say about their conditions and what they wanted in their place.  

They listened and they gathered what had been written as  “demands”. Some were written on the back of school exercise books, some on cigarette boxes. Others were dictated and taken down in meetings called for the purpose, or in individual encounters with volunteers. The volunteers were instructed to listen, and not to try to influence what was expressed.


These statements can be found, written or scribbled or typed in more or less systematic form in archival collections in various parts of the country. Some demands were eccentric but most of them joined in one voice to condemn lack of freedom of movement, inadequate housing and healthcare, land grabs and the Bantu Education system.

The drafting committee had to consolidate thousands of demands into what represented a consensus within a single document that comprised the stated aspirations of the majority of the people of South Africa.

This was a very different process from that through which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created in the United Nations, with orderly meetings and subcommittees working towards a final draft. It was also different from the creation of the South African constitution of 1996, with specialist groups of lawyers and other professionals assisting the drafters and passing through many drafts that were repeatedly re-negotiated and amended. 

The Freedom Charter, as a text, had to be put together in a hurry, much of it on the eve of the Congress of the People, although its broad contours were obvious. That was because the text represented both the specific ways in which most South Africans were aggrieved by apartheid oppression on the one hand, and the demands for broad universal rights respected throughout the world, but then inoperative for black people in South Africa, on the other.

This hurried drafting led to untidiness in the formulations; for example, the word “national” is used in more than one way. But it is this very untidiness deriving from its mode of creation that gives the Freedom Charter its unique, popular appeal. Some have alleged that the drafters influenced the contents in a particular ideological direction.  If that were so it was not reflected in the subsequent reception of the Charter. In report-back meetings people recognised what they had demanded, and that is why the document attained its revered status in the anti-apartheid struggle.

The popular nature of the document gave it a content that is both similar to other human rights documents – in its universality – and at the same time specific to the problems peculiar to the life of South Africa's oppressed people, like pass laws and cattle culling.

Looking back to 1955 one cannot but admire the boldness and audacity of a document created at the height of apartheid, daring to speak as “We, the people of South Africa” and “declaring”, not simply advancing an idea, “for all our country and the world to know”, that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”.  Furthermore, it stated, “no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”.

No document had previously been created in this way, possibly not in the world, nor had the apartheid government been confronted so starkly with the demands of the people. In that context the claims amounted to a revolutionary alternative to the oppression being experienced.

When we mark the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter, those who wish to demonstrate fidelity to its spirit best do this by not assuming it has an obvious meaning that can be arrived at by employing a “correct” interpretation. Not only has its meanings always been contested, but in the last 60 years a lot has happened and the context today is very different from 1955. We have also learnt some things and many people imagine freedom in ways that may enrich the Charter. Any approach to the Charter that wishes to make it a living document that still has relevance needs to look not only at the words but the spirit and draw on experiences that can amplify that interpretation. 

That can be illustrated by focusing on the democratic character of the Charter, for its preamble and very first clause stress this: “Only a democratic state, based on the will of the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief.”

The opening clause declares “The People Shall Govern!” At the time it was understood to mean universal suffrage and there were songs that spoke of Chief Albert Luthuli and other leaders going to parliament. Indeed, achieving the vote was not only a fundamental right in a representative democracy but insofar as it referred to adult suffrage it also had emancipatory connotations relating to the infantilisation of African adults referred to as “boys” or “girls”. Achieving the vote was therefore meaningful in many ways.

In the years that followed, the ANC and other liberation organisations were more or less suppressed, along with the Charter itself. Leaders were charged, initially with high treason and subsequently in various other trials that led to the long-term imprisonment or exile of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and others.

But as we noted on June 16, the spirit of freedom was not destroyed and from the late 1970s popular struggles re-emerged. In some of these, the understanding of democracy came to be enriched, notably in the popular power period of the 1980s (anticipated to some extent by the “mountain court” during the Mpondoland rebellion of the late 1950s).  

As rising resistance in the 1980s began making apartheid “unworkable” and South Africa “ungovernable” in significant respects, many communities established “elementary organs of people’s power”, admittedly with abuses in some (or many) cases, mainly when the older more experienced activists were arrested. Nevertheless this was a period of mass creativity, with people trying to take control of their own lives at a local level, especially after driving apartheid authorities out of townships. Indeed one civic activist, Weza Made, said in the mid-1980s that when they established street committees to resolve conflicts in Uitenhage, they were implementing the clause of the Freedom Charter declaring “The People Shall Govern!”

The experience of the 1980s led to the understanding of democracy being broadened to include both universal suffrage and a return to the original meaning of the word (condemned by Plato and Aristotle): that of direct democracy, independent of any state institution – what some scholars refer to as being the only meaning of democracy.

The Charter drew on South African experiences but, as suggested, was also universal in the rights it declared, having a bearing on contemporary problems. When it says South Africa belongs to “all who live in it”, it referred mainly to “black and white” but the formulation includes all inhabitants. In other words, it was created at the time when there were many workers who came from neighbouring states. It was intended that the human rights provisions that it enunciated would apply to all.

If the Freedom Charter is to “live” in this its 60th anniversary, we need to recognise that it must be interpreted afresh today and every year, because our conditions have changed and will continue to change. In addition, the notion of human emancipation may grow as we imagine new ways of realising our talents and aspirations.

Raymond Suttner is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA. He is a former underground operative and political prisoner. He has written extensively on the Freedom Charter, including 50 Years of the Freedom Charter (with Jeremy Cronin). His most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana).  His twitter handle is: @raymondsuttner.


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