Meanings of the Freedom Charter are not obvious, need debate

21st January 2015 By: Raymond Suttner

Meanings of the Freedom Charter are not obvious, need debate

Professor Raymond Suttner

In this 60th anniversary year of the Freedom Charter, much contestation relates to who is the authentic bearer of the vision behind it. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) claim to be true to its meaning (assuming it has one meaning), specifically to its economic clauses. 

The African National Congress (ANC), in contrast – having been the prime initiator of the Congress of the People, which led to the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955 – claims primacy for itself. Its way of doing this is not so much by reading and interrogating the values and potential scope of the meanings of the charter as by using the methodology of a checklist, much as one does when buying groceries. It reads a clause, as it did in the latest January 8 statement, and then explains how the ANC purports to have realised it. There is no invitation for debate of the charter itself.

There is an assumption that the meaning of the charter is obvious and all we have to do is read it and interpret it “properly”. But there is nothing obvious about the meaning, or indeed the continued relevance of the document.  That needs to be argued, interrogated and opened for debate. The charter must be understood contextually.  It evolved under specific conditions at a particular moment in history and its meaning related to the conditions that people then encountered, which are quite different from the present ones. 

Certainly there are core values relating to democracy in whatever interpretation we offer. But within those values or broad concepts of democracy, as we know, there can be and have been many different meanings and inflections over time. While there may be a core relationship to freedom and the people “governing”, how that is understood has been revised considerably since the word first arose in ancient Athens, then with the development of the US constitution changing the meaning attributed to democracy by introducing the notion of “representative democracy” and subsequent political practices elsewhere, including in South Africa itself. 

Let us consider the opening clause of the charter, “The People Shall Govern!” This clause followed on a preamble that was audacious for its time in that it purported to speak on behalf of all the people of South Africa, black and white. To claim to speak on behalf of all the people was subversive, as was the declaration “that no government can claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”.

What did it mean to say “The People Shall Govern”? According to the latest ANC January 8 statement this is obvious – it explains how the ANC leadership is elected and how parliament is elected. But let us unpack the notion. In the first place, in the history of the struggle against white domination it had taken very, very long for any organisation or gathering to claim to speak on behalf of all the people of the country. In the case of the African people, early political organisation aimed to attain the rights of British subjects through qualifying for the vote in the 19th century Cape. The pioneers of African politics, sometimes described as an “elite”, did not aspire to have rights as Africans but to be British subjects and bear rights as subjects of the current queen or king. This immediately led to a distinction between those who qualified and the “raw native in the kraal”. That aspiration to be protected by the crown remained a dominant – albeit not the only – theme in that version of African politics associated with the early ANC. 

In contrast, mainly three groupings – the Ethiopian churches that broke away from the established churches because of racism in the late 19th century, the Garveyites and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union – advanced an Africanist position, claiming that the land belonged to the African people. There was never an absolute breach between the universalism associated with many who were loyal to the crown and the militant Africanism of the early period. Many ANC leaders or future ANC leaders were involved in these organisations.

It was only in the 1940s that the ANC demanded universal suffrage and, in the case of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), declared that South Africa was a “black man’s country”. Although the YL set the programme for the ANC after its 1949 conference, their previously exclusivist position came under pressure. The ANC developed alliances with the Indian Congresses and other multiracial organisations including the Communist Party, both when it was legal and when it went underground, through individual members who were involved in the Indian Congresses, Congress of Democrats and other organisations.

By the time of the adoption of the Freedom Charter the ANC was relating on an organised basis with a range of organisations on a multiracial basis (the term non-racial was not in frequent use yet, and the various congresses were organised separately). But they spoke of a “common society”. Hence the bold opening declaration of the charter: “We, the people of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know; That South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white….”

At that time, insofar as the People of the time were to “govern”, it was generally understood to refer to parliament. In fact songs referred to Chief Albert Luthuli and other leaders going to parliament.  But over time the understanding of the charter was enriched beyond the election of representatives to parliament.

In the 1980s, it will be recalled that apartheid South Africa was made “ungovernable”, with police and collaborators driven out of townships. But this was not considered desirable as a permanent condition. Consequently the ANC and the United Democratic Front urged communities to establish what were called “elementary organs of people’s power”. Many took steps to control aspects of their civic life, notably crime prevention.  In some cases this was accompanied by violence and abuse, notably where a cross-generational mix was absent amongst those who took decisions, and where youth were dominant.

But in some parts of the country, notably Port Alfred but at times in Atteridgeville, Graaff Reinet and other places, people took control of their own lives, albeit within the limits of the locality where they lived. Weza Made, a leader in Uitenhage, referred to their actions as implementing the first clause of the Freedom Charter, “The People Shall Govern!”

In other words, the practice of communities in the 1980s led to the understanding of “the people governing” meaning both their having the right to vote and also direct popular action. Many documents of the time referred to the desirability of this state of affairs continuing once South Africa was liberated from apartheid. It was considered undesirable to see democratic life confined to periodic voting for representatives.

Unfortunately that notion of popular power fell by the wayside. Negotiations on constitutional structures led to certain agreements. While organs of popular power were not outlawed, neither were they addressed in the constitution.

It is true that there is popular involvement today, insofar as organisations representing communities do mobilise and lobby for or against specific legislation or actions by government, as in the action against the Traditional Courts Bill. It is important to encourage such popular agency, but popular power may entail more than this.

That ought to be part of any debate over the meanings and continued relevance of the Freedom Charter. Will our democracy not be enriched if it incorporates and encourages daily action by citizens, the “popular power” notion of democracy? Beyond this, the charter itself – if it is to survive as an emancipatory document – needs to be part of a broad and open debate.

Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, writes and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Suttner spent over eleven years as a political prisoner or under house arrest. His book Recovering democracy in South Africa will be published by Jacana Media and Lynn Rienner in March 2015. He blogs at His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.