60th Anniversary of the Freedom Charter

On June 26, South Africa marked the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter that became an action program for all South African anti-racism forces. Approved by 3,000 delegates to the Congress of the People, who arrived from all regions of the country, this document was a response to the National Party’s apartheid policies.

Representing the interests of the white population, primarily the Afrikaners (Boers), the National Party came to power in a 1948 election keynoted by appeals for “apartheid.” Earlier the NP steered a number of bills through Parliament that clearly impinged on the interests of all non-whites – Africans, coloreds and Indians. The apartheid system was based on the 1950 Group Areas Act that divided all citizens into racial groups confined to specific geographical locations. Africans had the right to live in restricted areas known as “homelands” or “Bantustans.” They were banned from visiting, let alone living in, “white” cities without special permission granted only to those with an urban job. Another law segregated hospitals, schools, and public transportation. But the most important thing was that the whites alone had political rights, elected Parliament, and served in the government.

Faced with this state of affairs, the anti-racism opposition realized the need to present its own vision of South Africa’s future and oppose the plans and actions of a racist regime. By that time, a number of South African political organizations – the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Indian Congress, the Colored People’s Congress, the South African Congress of [White] Democrats, and the South African Congress of Trade Unions – established the South African Congress Alliance. All of these took an active part in a nation-wide campaign to collect “freedom demands” from the people of South Africa, which embodied their views on a country they would like to live in. The demands were summarized and included in the Freedom Charter which, therefore, was a direct reflection of the opinions of thousands of South Africans and an alternative to the existing order.

A vision of a united, non-racial and democratic South Africa, the Freedom Charter was approved by the most representative meeting in the country’s history, which was held in Kliptown, a suburb of Johannesburg, on June 25-26, 1955. After that all member organizations of the African Congress Alliance approved the Freedom Charter as their official program.

Faced with this expression of the hopes and aspirations of all progressive forces in the country, South Africa’s racist rulers stepped up their reprisals, launching the so-called Treason Trial in 1956 that involved as defendants the majority of the congress heads. The trial lasted for almost five years and ended in failure, with the judges acquitting all the accused. But the trial also pulled the accused – the leaders of the fight against the regime – even closer together, which ran counter to the government’s desire to hold power.

Tensions surged in South Africa in 1960, when the police fired at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville and the authorities banned the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress that had broken away from the former. In this environment, the Umkonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the ANC’s military wing headed by Nelson Mandela, was established in December 1961.

But in August 1962, the CIA-aided police tracked down Nelson Mandela to his underground hideout. Other prominent resistance leaders were arrested in July 1963. A trial followed, at which point they were sentenced to life imprisonment. ANC leadership devolved into an émigré group headed by Oliver Tambo.

It took another two decades of struggle to bring the racist rulers of South Africa to their senses. They had to accept talks on political settlement and a peaceful dismantling of the apartheid system. As defined by the ANC, this struggle was underpinned by four “pillars:” mass political action, armed struggle, underground organizations, and international solidarity.

In February 1990, the ban was lifted from the ANC and other anti-racialism organizations, and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Protracted and difficult negotiations followed, which eventually culminated in the approval of a democratic constitution and the first general election in 1994. The ANC won a confident majority, with the new parliament unanimously electing its leader the President of South Africa.

The 60th anniversary prompted the opportunity to estimate the extent of its implementation. Politically, its success is obvious: South Africa does belong “to all who live in it, black and white.” People from different racial and ethnic groups enjoy equal rights regardless of race, color, or sex. The dictum that “the people shall govern” has been realized as well, as have the main provisions in the area of culture and education, leading to a higher level of literacy.

The government has been pursuing a large-scale housing construction program, but many people, as before, have to live in “informal settlements.” Plans to introduce free healthcare for all have yet to materialize.

South Africa has put in place progressive labor legislation; trade unions are active in every area of life, but a quarter of the able-bodied population is still unemployed.

Many in South Africa believe that the problem with implementing the Charter’s social agenda is that a number of its economic provisions remain suspended. It was suggested that “the mineral wealth and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole.” But in a situation shaped by the collapse of the USSR, the ANC leaders thought better of nationalizing these assets. As a result, their capacity to influence the economy proved limited. There is only slow progress on the promise that “the land shall be shared among those who work it.”

The Charter’s foreign policy provisions have been implemented with greater success. South Africa is “a fully independent state which respects the rights and sovereignty of all nations.” It has done much “to maintain peace and the settlement of all international disputes by negotiation,” as stipulated by the Charter. The Republic of South Africa is a leading country on the African Continent and its international role has been confirmed by its accession to BRICS.

South Africa has been promoting its ties with Russia with much success. These are based on the two-year-old Joint Declaration on the Establishment of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the Russian Federation and the Republic of South Africa. Especially, the successful development of bilateral relations is facilitated by the regular contacts between the heads of the two countries. Russia welcomes President Jacob Zuma’s participation in the celebrations dedicated to the 70th anniversary of Victory and in the current 7th BRICS summit in Ufa.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.