Sixty-five years ago today, on 26 June 1955, the Freedom Charter was adopted at the Congress of the People in Kliptown, Soweto. The idea of the charter as a manifesto in which a set of popular demands are inscribed stretches back to at least 10 June 1215 when the Magna Carta, also known as the Magna Charta – the Great Charter – was adopted at Runnymede, a meadow on the south bank of the Thames in London.
An affirmation of rights against the despotic authority of King John, the villain of the Robin Hood legend, the Magna Carta was an agreement between John and his barons. But, as the historian Peter Linebaugh argues, to see the rights affirmed in the Magna Carta as enlightened benevolence on the part of the barons ignores the reality that there was “struggle in the streets, the struggle in the prisons, the struggle in the slave ships, the struggle in the press, the struggle in Parliament over its interpretation”. As Linebaugh also notes, claims have continued to be made on the Magna Carta into the present. In 1994, when the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico announced itself to the world its spokesperson, Subcommandante Marcos, cited the Magna Carta to justify popular insurgency.
The Mandé Charter adopted in 1222 during the reign of King Sunjata of the Mandinka in parts of contemporary Mali, Senegal and Guinea, is derived from the oral traditions of the Mandinka hunters in the area. The axiomatic logic of its opening line, “Every human life is a life”, has a remarkable resonance with statements generated by the insurgent humanism often present in the contemporary struggles of impoverished urban residents in cities like Port-au-Prince, La Paz or Johannesburg.
But, like the Magna Carta, the Mandé Charter was a document that emerged from aristocratic authority. There have also been important instances of charters or manifestos elaborated from below. During the Peasants’ War, a popular revolt that swept German-speaking Europe in 1524 and 1525, claiming the lives of up to 300 000 peasants, around 50 representatives of the insurgency gathered, deliberated and issued the Twelve Articles, a set of demands for popular democracy and the protection of the commons.
The modern world was fundamentally shaped by two charters, the Declaration of Independence adopted in Philadelphia on 4 July 1776, and The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen adopted in Paris on 26 August 1789. But although both documents have been imbued with the authority of sacred texts, the reality is that, in the end, both the American and French Revolutions resulted in an expansion of racial slavery. Their ringing declarations of liberty were for some people; there was no commitment to the idea that “every human life is a life”. But in the case of the French Revolution there were significant attempts from below to appropriate a universal interpretation to the rights affirmed in Paris. This was most famously the case in Haiti where Toussaint Louverture used The Declaration to legitimate a slave revolt that would, after years of war, end in triumph.
The Congress of the People
The Freedom Charter was first conceived in 1953 when ZK Matthews, just back from a stint as a visiting professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, proposed that a Congress of the People be held to collect and record the demands of the people. Two years later the ANC sent out 50 000 volunteers to collect “freedom demands” from around the country. These demands were woven into a single document by a group of ANC-aligned intellectuals, including Matthews, Lionel Bernstein and Ruth First.
The Freedom Charter was adopted by 3 000 delegates at the Congress of the People while the police watched, and took photographs. Nelson Mandela, disguised in a milkman’s uniform, escaped their notice. It was soon inscribed into the ANC’s political mythology as an event of major significance and the text of the charter came to have a real influence on how the struggle was understood.
Of course, the Freedom Charter was never uncontested. As former ANC militant Raymond Suttner notes in a recent piece, the Africanist and Black Consciousness organisations rejected the charter’s affirmation that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”. There were also vigorous arguments from the Left as to whether or not the charter was a sufficiently socialist document. There have also been discussions as to whether it is a commitment to radical or representative democracy.
But by the 1980s, when the growing power of the black trade union movement, and then the community struggles linked together under the banner of the United Democratic Front, had made Congress politics overwhelmingly popular, the charter was everywhere. It was on T-shirts and on banners at trade union rallies, protests and cultural events. It had become a genuinely popular manifesto.
Awkward ANC stance
In the first decade or so after apartheid the new state often distributed copies of the charter and it sat together with the new Constitution in an unresolved tension. As late as 2005 it would be common for the walls of the rooms used for meetings of development committees in shack settlements in Durban to be adorned with two posters, both received from the municipality: a list of ward councillors and the Freedom Charter.
The Freedom Charter declares that in a free South Africa “The people shall govern”; education “shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal”; “All people shall have the right to live where they choose, to be decently housed”; “land redivided amongst those who work it, to banish famine and land hunger” and that “The national wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people”.
For at least a decade the ANC could present the realisation of the demands laid out in the charter as work in progress, as a credible vision of the future. But by 2004 and 2005 when people started to rebel against local party structures in shack settlements across the country, it had become clear that the ANC had become a vehicle for elite accumulation at the direct expense of the impoverished majority, and that independent popular organisation would be met with violence and the old colonial trope of the “outside agitator”, usually framed in terms of “the third force”.
On this new terrain the state, although habitually acting unlawfully, frequently declared itself sanctified by the new Constitution and popular opposition a front for reactionary forces wishing to restore the old order. But as these new social forces sought to legitimate themselves they often turned to the copies of the Freedom Charter made available to them by the state.
A living charter
In the historically black universities, where the struggle for access had been bitterly fought for years, students cited the charter’s declaration that “The doors of learning and culture should be opened”. In the shack settlements, which had begun their life as land occupations endorsed by the ANC and which were now facing eviction under the ANC, the charter’s declaration that “All shall have the right to occupy land wherever they choose” was widely discussed. As the state and the ruling party actively incited xenophobic and ethnic divisions to try and divide the new rebellion developing among the oppressed the phrase “South Africa belongs to all who live in it” was mobilised in support of a politics that insisted that everyone who lives here is from here.
Today the ANC makes much less mention of the Freedom Charter than it used to for the simple reason that while the charter, with its vision of an economy and society that provides decent living conditions for all, used to make the party look good it now makes it look bad. In 2020 there is no credible basis to argue that the ANC is steadily moving society towards the realisation of the charter’s goals. People are getting poorer, hunger is escalating, every year more people make their lives in shacks, jobs are disappearing and the state’s response to the crisis of growing immiseration is increasingly repressive, and often murderously so.
With an economic crisis at a scale not seen since the 1930s, and a state bent on austerity and already habituated to violent repression, we all know that for most people things are getting rapidly worse. Under these increasingly grim circumstances the ongoing desire to affirm the Freedom Charter, and to contest its meaning from below, is a welcome sign that not everybody has given up on a socially inclusive and just vision for the future.