South Africa’s Freedom Charter after 60 years

Almost sixty years ago, in June 1955, a few thousand South Africans gathered in a public square in Kliptown, 40 kilometres south of Johannesburg. A document was drawn up and presented to the gathering for adoption, known as the Freedom Charter.

Today, Kliptown is part of the huge Soweto township of more than a million people, but back then it was one of the few multiracial residential areas, and the crowd was made up of all South Africa’s major race groups – black and white, coloured and Asian.
The name of the gathering – the Congress of the People – expressed its purpose, which was to take forward the popular struggle against apartheid and in favour of democratic rights for all South Africans. It was the culmination of a long campaign in which activists travelled to every corner of the country asking people for their views and demands about the country’s political future. Based on these wishes, a document was drawn up and presented to the gathering for adoption – and this document, known as the Freedom Charter, occupies an iconic place in South Africa’s history.

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The Freedom Charter begins with a ringing phrase: “ 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, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people”
It goes on to state a series of demands and aspirations touching on all aspects of political, economic and social life: ‘the People Shall Govern’; ‘All National Groups Shall Have Equal Rights’; ‘the People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth’; ‘the Land Shall Be Shared Among Those Who Work It’; ‘All Shall Be Equal Before the Law’; ‘All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights’; ‘There Shall Be Work and Security’; ‘the Doors of Learning and Culture Shall Be Opened’; ‘There Shall Be Houses, Security and Comfort’; ‘There Shall Be Peace and Friendship’. Finally, it concludes with a commitment: “These freedoms we will fight for, side by side, throughout our lives, until we have won our liberty.”.

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The fight was to continue for many years before these aspirations began to be realised. Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the majority of South Africans were denied their most basic rights. Indeed, the Freedom Charter itself was a ‘banned’ document – it was a crime even to possess a copy. Hundreds of those who had been instrumental in developing it, members of what was called ‘the Congress Movement’, were imprisoned or went into exile far from their homeland. Many died at the hands of the apartheid security forces.
But the spirit of the Charter was never allowed to die, and when the great changes began to take place in South Africa in 1990, it helped to form the basis on which Nelson Mandela and other liberation leaders conducted negotiations with the white regime. A few years later, in 1996, the Freedom Charter also provided much of the foundation for South Africa’s Constitution, a document which places great emphasis on social and economic rights, as well as the traditional political and civil rights.

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Now, 21 years after South Africa achieved democracy, and sixty years after the Congress of the People, President Jacob Zuma has declared 2015 to be the ‘Year of the Freedom Charter and Unity in Action’. Does this mean that the aspirations and the vision of the Freedom Charter have been honoured and fulfilled? To some extent, yes. South Africa has political freedom, with regular multi-party elections that allow ‘the people to govern’ through their elected representatives. There has been some success in restoring land to those who were deprived of it under apartheid, and the government has built millions of houses for the homeless. Most of the time, people’s human rights are respected, and there is freedom of speech, of conscience, of religion, of movement. People of different races are beginning to break down the barriers between them, and among children especially, there is no longer a strong consciousness of race; there are signs that ‘peace and friendship’ is not just a dream.

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But on the other hand, some of the Charter’s demands have been cynically ignored by those in the most powerful positions. While millions of his people still live in poverty, President Zuma approved the expenditure of US$25 million on his private residence. Corruption in government is widespread and seldom punished; those found guilty are soon welcomed back into the fold. Many important public institutions, including television and radio, the police and the prosecution service, are politically influenced in favour of the governing party. President Zuma has used every possible trick to avoid answering accusations of corruption, and he clearly considers himself above the law.
The Charter promised that there would be ‘work and security’, but unemployment is stuck at over 25%, and nearly 50% among young people. Standards of education are lower than ever before, and millions of children leave school without sufficient learning to enable them to compete for jobs. Due to poor planning and a lack of foresight, South Africa can no longer produce enough electricity to meet demand, with dire consequences for economic growth and job creation.

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And so, as we prepare to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Freedom Charter, we are left with a mixture of feelings. The country is in a much better position than it was in 1955, when 80% of its people were deprived of human rights and a political voice. Now, all South Africans have the right to determine their political future, regardless of race, ethnicity or origin. But we have failed to consolidate our freedom; there is too much corruption, not enough respect for the rule of law and the institutions of democracy. There is still much to fight for before, as the Freedom Charter says, ‘we have won our liberty’.

Mike Pothier


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