50 Years of the Freedom Charter: 26 June 2005
- A Time of Great Political Challenges
- The Congress of the People.
- Volunteers Collect the People's Demands
- Kliptown, 25th and 26th June 1955
- Police Break Up the Gathering
- The Freedom Charter
- Why the Freedom Charter Remains Important Today
It is hard today to imagine the harsh world into which the Freedom Charter was born.
The Bantu Education Act (1953) had brought mission schools - the only institutions offering broad, liberal education to African people - under government control. Said Dr Hendrik Verwoerd: "there is no place for him [the black man] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour".
There were increasing prosecutions under the Immorality Act, which (in tandem with the Mixed Marriages Act) forbade black and white people to marry, cohabit or have sex with one another.
Pass law convictions averaged more than 300 000 a year during the 'fifties, about one-tenth of the entire black African population.
Hundreds of black activists had been barred from public life by the Suppression of Communism Act, which defined a 'communist' as anyone whom the Minister of Police chose to name as such.
At its conference in 1953, the ANC adopted the idea of a Congress of the People. Its task would be to formulate a Freedom Charter.
Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu were mandated to promote the campaign. They began by calling together meetings at which they trained and inspired leaders. These meetings often took place in commercial premises, such as an Indian tailor's shop, where they were able to avoid detection. People were told to behave like customers, wandering about and fingering the bolts of cloth, until they were sure they had not been followed by the police. Then they would slip into the back to attend the meeting.
The Congress of the People was made up of the ANC, the Indian Congress, the Cape-based South African Coloured People's Organisation and a small group of whites who formed the Congress of Democrats. This alliance of all races was called the Congress Alliance.
The Freedom Charter was to be written by ordinary people themselves.
Volunteers in khaki uniforms were told to write down demands and grievances, and talk about ways in which things could be set right. People were asked to say which laws were unjust and what should be done about them. Each group was then invited to send a delegate to the Congress of the People.
Demands began to flow into the headquarters of the Congress Alliance. They were written on pages torn out of school exercise books, on little scraps of paper, on the backs of leaflets. Said Oliver 'OR' Tambo: "the Freedom Charter was being compiled from thousands of written statements ? gathered at thousands of small meetings".
The Congress of the People was held at Kliptown on a privately owned soccer field. Flags and banners decked the field. Mountains of food were prepared by a catering committee led by Ahmed Kathrada.
Thousands of delegates travelled for days on buses and trucks, bringing blankets and food to sustain them through the cold winter nights. The approach to Johannesburg swarmed with police, stopping vehicles crowded with delegates on their way to Kliptown.
Nearly three thousand delegates and 700 spectators finally gathered on the field. Wrote Chief Luthuli: "nothing in the history of the liberation struggle quite caught the popular imagination as this did". Even prime minister Malan was invited, though he failed to reply. Instead, he sent his police to the gathering.
Over the next two days, each clause of the Freedom Charter was read out, debated and length and adopted.
At the end of the second day (ironically when the clause calling for universal peace and friendship was being discussed), the police suddenly launched a raid. They charged up to the field in trucks and a dozen Special Branch detectives climbed the platform and presented search warrants. They were there, they said, to investigate a case of 'high treason'. Tanks rolled in. Ida Mtwana scrambled to the platform, saying: "let us start singing" and led the crowd into the first bars of Nkosi Sikelela iAfrika.
The police began a massive body search. They seized every document they could find and sealed all entrances and exits. Once searched, delegates were ordered to leave by officers armed with rifles. People were photographed for security files.
So ended one of the most important and significant events in South African history. But the document that set out the vision for a united and democratic South Africa survived, as a founding document, a blueprint to guide the hard years ahead.
Its preamble read:
"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 people; 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 our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood enjoying equal rights and opportunities; that only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief; and therefore, we the people of South Africa, black and white together - equals, countrymen and brothers - adopt the Freedom Charter."
It was to be almost 40 years before the vision represented in the Freedom Charter saw its realisation in the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.
Today, 50 years after the Kliptown gathering, the principles and ideals of the Charter are encapsulated in many other documents, including our national Constitution. But that eloquent document, made up of the wishes and demands of thousands of dispossessed people all over South Africa, lives on in its own right.
It was, after all, the first document in South Africa to declare that "South Africa belongs to all who live in it".
And it is on this simple yet compelling call to unity that we have founded our vision of a Home for All in the Western Cape.
Access The Freedom Charter here.