The Freedom Charter - A Beacon to the People of South Africa

By Alfred Nzo Secretary General of the African National Congress, first published in the African Communist, Second Quarter, 1980

June 26, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter, is an important highlight of this first year of the new decade. It is an occasion which challenges all patriotic South Africans to reassess the current phase of the liberation struggle in the light of the ideas of the Freedom Charter the revolutionary programme of our movement. It is an occasion to cast our minds back over the past quarter century to see how and why the Freedom Charter has been and is 'a beacon to the Congress movement and an inspiration to the people of South Africa' to quote the memorable words of our comrade Nelson Mandela. And it is an occasion to draw from this historic document fresh guidance and renewed dedication to the task which history lays on us, of uniting and mobilising all oppressed people, all progressive and democratic forces in our motherland for the overthrow of the hated apartheid system and the establishment of people's power.

It is fitting on such on occasion to look back over the long and stony trail which our people have trod in the past twenty-five years, because the progress that has been made, the advances won in the face of the bitter and ruthless repression of the fascist regime and the hostility of its imperialist backers, are a measure not only of the tremendous significance of the Freedom Charter, but also of the changing balance of forces in South Africa and the world and therefore of the rate of advance of our people towards inevitable victory.

The Congress of the People, convened jointly by the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, the Congress of Democrats and the South African Coloured Peoples Organisation, expressed more profoundly and authentically than any single event before or since the common aspiration of the overwhelming majority of South Africans, black and white, to live in peace in the country of their birth, to shape its future and share its fruits, to put an end to the centuries of colonial domination, racist tyranny, exploitation, misery and humiliation. After eighteen months of intensive preparation in every part of the country, the Congress of the People came as the culmination of the most widespread and thorough canvassing of opinion, of the most truly democratic process South Africa had ever witnessed. It built on the militant spirit of the Youth League and the Programme of Action of 1949, it consolidated the unity in action achieved in the mass campaigns of the nineteen-forties and topped by the Defiance Campaign of 1952, it gave cohesion and clarity of direction to the liberation movement at a decisive moment in its growth as a truly mass movement. In short, it laid the basis for the further development of our national liberation movement, and is one of those outstanding events which made our movement what it is today.

The Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter which it adopted were the outcome not merely of the preceding years of struggle but of the centuries of popular resistance to colonialism and race rule. In truth the Freedom Charter synthesised the many and varied strands of our peoples' tireless assertion of their will to self-determination. It reflected and always will reflect our undying opposition to the fascist monster that has disfigured our land and mutilated generations of our people. It is because the Freedom Charter embodies the heroic traditions and the sacred aspirations of the people that it lives today and gains fresh vitality with every step forward on the road to freedom.

It is salutary to recall that the Congress of the People was held at a time when the political strength and organisational capacity of the African National Congress was already beginning to shake the foundations of the fascist order in our country; when a peaceful road to freedom still seemed to lie open, some six years before the birth of the people's army, Umkhonto we Sizwe; when the fighting unity of the different sectors of the oppressed was still in its infancy and the independent movement of black workers firmly committed to the political and economic emancipation of all workers had moved into a new stage with the formation of SACTU only a few months previously. The Congress of the People took place when the number of independent African states could be counted on the fingers of one hand and the formation of the OAU was still eight years distant. It was a time when the non-aligned movement had only just been born at the historic Bandung Conference, when French colonialism had been freshly defeated by heroic Vietnam but the long war against US aggression lay still in the future, and people's Cuba was no more than a dream in the hearts of Fidel Castro and the militants who rallied to the call of the revolution.

In this perspective, the clarity and correctness of the ideas of the Freedom Charter testify to the revolutionary maturity of those responsible for drawing up the Charter the people of South Africa. That the Charter has stood the test of time, outlived its critics and defeated every attempt of the enemy to brand it as 'treason', demonstrates the rich heritage of struggle of our people, the justness of our cause and the necessity of the Charter as the definitive expression of the goals of our national liberation struggle.

Global Concepts

If many of the demands and concepts of the Freedom Charter have become essential elements of the policy of African and Asian states today, if they are already becoming living realities in the lives of the peoples of Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia and other African countries dedicated to a new social order free from discrimination and exploitation, it is because our freedom struggle is an integral part of the world-wide struggle against racism, colonialism and imperialism, for peace, independence and social progress. The vision which inspires us, the goals which bind us in unbreakable ties of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe and with other peoples breaking the chains of slavery, the ideals which we share with the vast majority of mankind and which are set out in the Freedom Charter these are at one and the same time the product of our own particular sufferings and struggles and the common heritage and universal experience of all oppressed and exploited peoples in this epoch of revolutionary transformations.

When in 1962, the South African Communist Party adopted its programme The Road to South African Freedom, it advanced its proposals for 'the building of a national democratic state' specifically 'within the framework of the Freedom Charter which the Party considers to be suitable as a general statement of the aims of a state of national democracy'. The endorsement of the Freedom Charter by the SACP reflected the maturing of the alliance between it and the ANC and in turn helped to consolidate the alliance and strengthen the basis for future co-operation between the two organisations which has continued ever since.

To the racists the Freedom Charter spelled doom. Having tried and failed to suppress it as treasonable, they tried and failed to suppress the vanguard organisation of the liberation struggle which had mobilised the people for the creation of the Charter. The Congress movement fought back, declaring war on the enemy with the formation of the people's army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, on December 16, 1961. Frustrated by the 'no surrender' policy of the ANC and its allies, the racists sought to terrorise the masses into submission. Their answer came on the battlefields of Zimbabwe in 1967/68, in the birth and spread of the Black Consciousness movement, in the waves of clandestine propaganda, in the factories of Natal and the mine compounds from 1972/3 onwards and in the streets of Soweto, Alexandra, Guguletu, Bontehenwel and a thousand other places in 1976. With the enemy devising new schemes to divide and further dispossess the people through the Bantustans and other puppet institutions, the African National Congress was already forging unity at yet a higher level in the Morogoro conference and in the struggles of the seventies. Through all this complex tapestry of different forms and methods of struggle, armed and unarmed, legal and illegal, underground and open, on the political, economic and ideological battlefronts, the ideas and inspiration of the Freedom Charter ran like a golden thread, unifying the diverse forces that together make up our liberation movement. Just as all the struggles which went before it contributed to the Freedom Charter, so all the struggles which have come after it owe something to it, and have brought closer the day of its realisation. To mention some of the highlights of our movement since the Congress of the People indicates how far we have come in these twenty-five years. But no document, however profound or correct in its content and especially no document born of struggle and dedicated to change, stands still, motionless in the onward rush of history. The significance of this anniversary lies not only in the past but principally in the present and the future. History has placed on the shoulders of the African National Congress a triple burden. Starting 68 years ago with the fundamental task of uniting the African people, the most oppressed and downtrodden, the ANC has moved steadily into the wider role of uniting and mobilising all the oppressed people and all democratic and patriotic forces. The Freedom Charter itself, with its vision of a free South Africa belonging to all who live in it, guaranteeing equal rights to all and creating conditions for the economic, educational and cultural liberation and progress of all South Africans, points to a further stage whose tasks will only begin to be fulfilled when-the racist system will have been overthrown and people's power established. The enormous challenge posed by this historic mission makes it impossible for us to rest on the laurels of past achievements. We cannot pause for a moment, but must examine afresh the obstacles in our path and see how to overcome them.

Botha's Total Strategy

Our country today is witnessing the disastrous infamies and effects of the total strategy of the fascist regime of P W Botha. The true meaning of this strategy is now open for all to see. It means total war against the people. To strip a people of their citizenship and make them foreigners in the land of their birth, is nothing less than to make war on them. To impose puppet regimes on them in the Bantustan islands of backwardness, saying 'These are your governments', is to make war on them. And to uproot hundreds of thousands of men, women and children from their long-established homes and lands, driving them at gunpoint to bleak remote dumping grounds, where misery, disease, hunger, thirst, utter poverty and death await them what is this if not an act of war? The barbarous forced removals practised in the name of the 'consolidation' of the Bantustans, the elimination of so-called 'black spots' in 'white South Africa', and the implementation of residential segregation under the Group Areas Act, all amount to a policy of genocide against the people and daily prove that apartheid far from being dead, is spreading like a cancer bringing pain and death to all it touches.

Against this racist barbarism the Freedom Charter poses the aspirations of the oppressed for full and equal citizenship in one united and unitary South Africa, the restoration of the land to the people, the right to occupy land wherever they choose, freedom of movement and the replacement of all bodies of minority rule by democratic organs of self-government. Every act of resistance to mass removals, to Bantustan tyranny, to Pretoria's insidious scheme to eliminate all black South Africans, leaving the white minority in sole command of 87% of the country, is an affirmation of the Freedom Charter. And this resistance is being waged up and down the country, from Crossroads to Pietersburg, from Walmer to Alexandra, and in countless homes and places where individuals and families, parents and youth, stand up and denounce the enemy's actions and try by all means to thwart them and make them fail.

The Bantustan policy, properly understood as a criminal attempt to complete the dispossession of the people, perpetuate their subordination, intensify their exploitation and destroy their national unity by the creation of tribal satellite states, is totally rejected by the vast majority of the African people. Only a handful of politically bankrupt careerists and renegades have betrayed the national unity and sacred interests of the mass of the people for the sake of temporary gain. They will be swept away on to the rubbish heap of history together with their puppet-masters in Pretoria by the mass mobilisation of the anger and hatred of the people, inspired by the goals of the Freedom Charter and led by the vanguard and armed organisation of the people, the African National Congress.

All tactics and methods of struggle pursued by patriotic forces today against the Bantustan policy must therefore satisfy two fundamental requirements if they are not to lead into the path of betrayal and the furthering of the enemy's aims. In the first instance they must be consistent with the ideas of the Freedom Charter, which stands as a complete and consistent answer to the Bantustan policy. Secondly, they must advance and not retard, aid not frustrate that mass mobilisation and that armed action of the angry masses without which all talk of liberation will remain a dangerous illusion.

As Sechaba, official organ of the ANC, pointed out recently, the implementation of the Freedom Charter will:

'presuppose and demand the destruction of the white racist regime and the abolition of national, cultural, religious and language privileges of whites over blacks. This will encompass equality of all ethnic groups large or small, black or white and satisfaction of their national rights and feelings, traditions and customs, aspirations and emotions, characteristics and features and the development of their languages and culture, interaction between different cultures and languages and interethnic contacts. This is what we mean by national self-determination.

This entails the injection of hatred for the enemy and all that he stands for, imbuing the masses with a revolutionary consciousness, and this should be accompanied by stimulation of national pride and identity, assertiveness and patriotism which are associated with the revolutionary traditions of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism of all our people and ethnic groups and their positive contribution to the struggle for social progress. The solution of the national question in South Africa entails a 'violent change'(armed struggle) in the status quo, the raising of the living standard of the black majority to that of the whites and then the general improvement and development in material life and cultural welfare of all the people irrespective of race, colour or creed to an extent hitherto unknown in South Africa.'

(3rd quarter, 1978)
The decade of the seventies, brought to a resounding close by the successes of 1979 as the Year of the Spear, were characterised at the subjective level by the rapid growth of precisely that revolutionary consciousness and the assertion of that national pride and dignity to which Sechaba refers. This was demonstrated most dramatically by the militant youth and students, who fought with such energy and many of whom showed their consciousness by volunteering for the people's army. But nowhere was this new assertiveness more in evidence than in the ranks of the oppressed workers, manifested in their numerous militant actions for improvements in their wages and conditions of work, against discrimination and victimisation, in the building of their own trade union organisations, in defence of their rights to organise and to strike and above all in support of general political demands. This mighty pressure struck fear into the enemy's heart and out of this fear and total failure of the state to quell the forward advance of the black workers by purely repressive means was born the fiendish scheme of the Wiehahn and Riekert Commissions to incorporate the organised elements of the working class into a state-dominated system of labour relations, while stepping up the destabilisation of the black working class by increasing migratory labour. At the same time, the state's economic policies are deliberately designed to maximise black unemployment with the aim of creating optimal conditions for the local and international monopolies to boost the lagging rate of their profits.

Year of the Workers

It is in this context that the declaration by SACTU of 1980 as the Year of the Mobilisation of the Workers takes on its significance as being complementary to, and indeed essential to the realisation of 1980 as the Year of the Freedom Charter as proclaimed by the African National Congress. The ANC has long recog~used the fundamental reality of the South African situation that as long as the key levers of economic power remain in the hands of a tiny circle of rapacious monopolists there can be no true freedom. The Freedom Charter points the way out of the present system of greed and super-exploitation with its bold assertion that the national wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole: and all other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people. As the document The Strategy and Tactics of the African National Congress adopted at the 1969 Morogoro conference correctly indicated, national emancipation is:

'in a very real way bound up with economic emancipation. We have suffered more than just national humiliation, our people are deprived of their due in the country's wealth; their skills have been suppressed and poverty and starvation has been their life experience. The correction of these centuries-old economic injustices lies at the very core of our national aspirations.'

The best guarantee of the implementation of this aspect of the Freedom Charter is the leadership of the working people in the national movement. It is precisely this leadership, this central role of the workers which the Botha regime is trying to avert by the plan to shackle the independent black trade unions, drive wedges between the minority of skilled workers who are permanently based in the cities and the majority who are unskilled and increasingly being turned into migrants, and place the urban masses under the political influence of vacillating, if not fatally compromised middle class elements of the Thebehali breed. Again, the Freedom Charter comes out against all the key features of exploitation and offers a revolutionary alternative to the reactionary strategy of the bosses and their regime:

There shall be work and security!

All who work shall be free to form trade unions, to select their officers and make wage agreements with their employers; the state shall recognise the right and duty of all to work, and to draw full unemployment benefits;

Men and women of all races shall receive equal pay for equal work; there shall be a forty-hour working week, a national minimum wage, paid annual leave and sick leave for all workers and maternity leave for all working mothers;

Miners, domestic workers, farm workers and civil servants shall have the same right as all others who work;

Child labour, compound labour, the tot system and contract labour shall be abolished.'

The total war strategy of P W Botha has emerged in the recent period as the greatest single threat to the peace, security and independence of the states of Southern Africa and as the greatest obstacle to the winning of independence and people's power in Zimbabwe and Namibia. By its persistent attacks on the peoples of Angola, Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique, either directly or through the bankrupt Muzorewa-Smith regime, by its violations of international law, threats and economic pressures against these countries and against Lesotho and Swaziland, the fascist regime, by revealed that its master plan for a constellation of states in Southern Africa is nothing more than an attempt to secure the eternal domination of the racist minority in South Africa itself by imposing new colonial dependency on all the peoples of the region, as a bulwark for international imperialism in Africa.

This attempt to reverse the gains of the people, won by heroic endeavour, to halt the advancing tide of national liberation and social progress is doomed to fail. The times have long passed when imperialism and reaction could dictate the course of events. Today it is the toiling masses, the patriotic forces, revolutionary democrats of diverse social origins, who are shaping their own destinies, backed by the true internationalism and growing strength of the socialist world, and no power on earth can stop them as the experience of heroic Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Iran, Polisario and the Palestinian people has decisively proven.

Our people's vision embodied in the Freedom Charter of a fully independent South African state (independent, that is of imperialism and colonialism) which respects the rights and sovereignty of nations, which aims to maintain world peace and settle all international disputes by negotiation not war, which will secure peace and friendship amongst peoples by upholding the equal rights, opportunities and status of all, which takes as the basis of close co-operation the independence and self-government of all the peoples of Africa this vision of our region's and our continent's future is both fully consistent with the most progressive and increasingly decisive trends on a world scale and totally irreconcilable with the Botha nightmare of a constellation of states.

In this context the Botha regime would be well advised to reconsider its policy of intervening in Zimbabwe with a view to preventing the advent or consolidation of genuine people's government. Not only will our brother Zimbabweans refuse to be intimidated from seizing what is rightfully theirs, but our own people will not stand idly by watching any manoeuvre aimed ultimately at perpetuating the slave system in South Africa itself. And in the Front Line states the peoples and governments are increasingly determined and able to defend their gains and see the process of liberation in our sub-continent through to its logical and inevitable completion.

Cosmetic Surgery

Faced by the mounting challenges on its doorstep and within its very house, the racist clique in Pretoria has been compelled to undertake cosmetic surgery, to seek to put a human face on the monster which all progressive mankind knows and abominates as apartheid. This too forms part of the total strategy designed for our enslavement. In the guise of reform it offers insignificant changes such as the abolition of statutory job reservation while maintaining the informal colour bar in industry, talk of 'improving' the Immorality Act and Mixed Marriages Act while maintaining the obnoxious principles which underlie them, allowing the registration of black trade unions but on conditions which will reduce them to impotence, abandoning the name of Bantu Education while preserving its substance and many more such gestures of the same ilk. While the mass of our people are not allowed for one moment to forget their oppression is worsening, not getting lighter, there are nevertheless in certain quarters elements who may be tempted into accepting the fascist regime on its own terms, thereby falling into the trap of reformist illusions.

The Freedom Charter, properly understood, is a defence against this manoeuvre, for the demands it contains cannot begin to be satisfied by piecemeal changes. They objectively require the seizure of power and the implementation of fundamental measures to transform our country and set it on the path which will lead it away from racism and exploitation, towards true independence, equality, social justice and peace.

By the same token, the outside world can also judge the reforms of Botha and his fascist gang by the yardstick of the Freedom Charter. Only those who will grasp at any straw to justify their continuing collaboration with the racists and their greed to profit from the labour and suffering of our people will evade the conclusion that the 'new look' of the South African regime is the same old abomination thinly disguised. Others, less ignobly motivated, may be tempted to find in these cosmetic changes evidence of an inevitable drift towards the deracialisation of the state and a peaceful evolution towards a more just social order. We owe it to them, as well as to ourselves, to take advantage of the Year of the Freedom Charter to drive home the reality of our country, that a state founded on colonial conquest and dispossession cannot legitimise itself, cannot and does not desire to right historical wrongs, and that our struggle requires the overthrow not the modification of the existing state and its replacement by a democratic state, based on the will of all the people. In short, we seek no more and no less than other colonised peoples have sought and any attempt to reduce the scope of our struggle, as defined by the Freedom Charter, to one for 'civil rights' is ultimately an attempt to treat the fascist regime as legitimate and a rejection of our movement and its struggles as illegitimate.

We South Africans have little chance for illusions about the enormity of the task we are engaged in. In this 69th year of the African National Congress we rejoice in the inexhaustible resolve of our people to be free which has guaranteed that our vanguard organisation has overcome all efforts to rout it, and has gone from strength to strength, so that today its prestige at home and abroad has never been higher. Yet more difficulties and obstacles lie ahead, and in measuring the distance that still lies between where we are today and the South Africa of the Freedom Charter, we turn again to the Charter itself as the programme of the people which alone can unite them into the irresistible movement which will crush the apartheid system. Bus boycotts, workers' strikes, resistance to mass removals, the battles against higher rents, evictions and pass law harassment, the fight against apartheid sport, against dummy pseudo-representative institutions such as Community Councils and the SA Indian Council, the struggles for fair wages, for jobs and houses, against colour bars in all walks of life, the fight against inferior education, against censorship and the suppression of the people's culture, the building of an ever stronger underground movement capable of withstanding all blows, the resistance of our comrades in jail and in court, of which the militant defiance of James Mange and his fellow accused is an outstanding example, the inspiring assaults on police stations and other armed actions of Umkhonto we Sizwe these and countless other acts of resistance, reflecting an incredible variety of forms and methods of struggle in widely differing conditions, are given coherence and united into one powerful force by the simple fact that every aspiration they represent is found within the Freedom Charter. It is thus that the Freedom Charter gains in significance with every passing year. Its demands, clearly and simply stated, embrace all the local and particular, sectional and regional struggles and unite them into a national movement for liberation.

That the ideas of the Freedom Charter are gaining ground rapidly in South Africa today is clear from even a superficial glance at the policies and programmes of different groups. Consciously or unconsciously echoing the Charter (and increasingly it is consciously), the demands of different sectors of the oppressed chime together in a swelling and harmonious chorus. Fortified by the support of the socialist countries and other anti-imperialist and progressive forces, the African National Congress is soberly confident of its capacity to widen and deepen the political mobilisation of the oppressed masses and democratic forces to the point where it becomes possible to transform the ideas of the Freedom Charter into an irresistible physical force. This is the challenge of the eighties.

At at time when the enemy is trying to drive tribal wedges into our national unity and to woo other sectors of the oppressed with separate solutions, seeking out every individual or clique that is prone to place personal advancement above the interests of the people as a whole, the Freedom Charter shows how group and sectional interests can be reconciled within a common movement and indeed can only be defended as an integral part of a common programme. There is on an unprecedented scale in South Africa today, and not only amongst the oppressed but also amongst those who in the short term benefit materially from the privilege of being white, an anxious search for ways out of the dangerous crisis into which the Afrikaner Nationalist Party has led our country. It is our task in 1980 to carry the Charter to all such people so that they can see for themselves that there is a way out, entailing self-sacrifice, but not suicide and guaranteeing a peaceful and just future. For the Charter is the destiny of all South Africans all patriots and neither the Charter itself, nor the courageous militants who take up arms to fight for it, can be denounced as treason or traitors to our country. Rather it is the criminals who have turned our fatherland into an armed camp who are the traitors. They are prepared even to unleash a nuclear holocaust in their futile bid to retain power. These are the ones who have betrayed South Africa. The growing number of young whites who refuse to fight under the banner of this betrayal is itself a symptom of the bankruptcy of the regime and its growing inability to deceive even those reared within its fold.

In its tireless efforts to constantly widen and strengthen the unity of patriotic forces the African National Congress is guided by the spirit of Freedom Charter because, as the people's charter, it is a touchstone of patriotism in our situation. While aiming at the utmost flexibility so as to combine all forms and methods of struggle, the ANC also recognises that history has moved on since the Congress of the People, closing to us the peaceful path which then seemed open and obliging us to take up arms against the oppressor. Today, with the lessons of people's war and the victories it brought in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe bringing us renewed inspiration, patriotism also requires a truly positive response to the challenges of mounting a people's war in our own country. All the signs are that this response will be forthcoming and that the Year of the Freedom Charter will carry us much closer to the sacred goals of the people.

Long Live the Freedom Charter!
The Struggle Continues!
Victory is Certain!
Amandla Ngawethu! Matlo ke a Rona!
All Power to the People!


© Liberation Archive 2005. Page generated at 20:39:44; 20 January 2005