Does the Freedom Charter Mean Socialism?

In the course of the campaign to win a million signatures for the Freedom Charter, South Africans of all roses and classes are discussing the aims and objects of the Charter and its implications.

This article appeared in New Age on November 17th, 1957.

The Freedom Charter, adopted four months ago at the Congress of the People, is a stirring document, embodying all the deepest and most pressing needs of the people and charting a new course for a free South Africa. The programme is not a sectarian one, the property of any single political party or movement. In its phrases and demands the Charter is as old as the people's struggle in South Africa. Its calls for security, an end to discrimination, for work, housing and education re-echo the demands of the many hard battles the people have waged on all these fronts.

Yet the Charter is unique. It differs from all previous political documents of the liberatory movements in its completeness and all-embracing nature. Above all, it not only exposes all that is rotten, decaying and oppressive in the present system, but it unfolds the vision and the shape of the new life that will replace it.

The Charter is unique, too, in that it was adopted not at some restricted leaders' or delegates' conference, but by the people themselves after over a year of prolonged and intensive discussion. The Charter thus, is of the people and belongs to them.

Yet the Charter is more than a document. It is a political programme, and political programmes which are not a guide to action are like a paralysed limb. The people have entrusted the Charter to their organisations who had the courage to call into being the Congress of the People, and a great campaign is now under way to get the Charter endorsed with a million signatures.

Enthusiasm for the Charter must be born not of blind obedience to its aims, but of the understanding that, taken together, these aims are the only possible way out of the present impasse and towards the formation of a people's government founded on justice and equality.


Everywhere the people have received the Charter with enthusiasm. Yet, in some quarters there have been doubts expressed about aspects of the Charter. Some of our most respected leaders have expressed genuine misgivings about that section of the Charter which reads:

'The People Shall Share in the Country's Wealth. 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. All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people. All people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions'.

The Charter does not propose merely a reform of the present system, a patching-up of its worst evils, an amelioration of some of its conditions. This Charter proclaims that only a complete change of state form can result in the people achieving their aims. Some groups, like the Liberals, have the illusion that real democracy can be achieved within the existing constitutional set-up. They believe that the repeal of certain laws on the statute book is sufficient. Such a purely reformist attitude is unrealistic and takes no note of history.

Every state form has been moulded to serve a particular set-up and through the centuries, as one order made way for another, the emergent ruling group had to erect quite new state forms to consolidate its power. It had to do more than that. It had to break the stranglehold which the old regime had on the economy of the country and, through the economy, on the state apparatus. It would, for instance, have been impossible to do away with serfdom and feudal social relations without breaking the economic power of the land barons.

The Colour Bar

Why the system of colour discrimination in South Africa? Is it some natural inhumanity of Whites towards Non-Whites? Is it just re-education in the spirit of justice, and a change of heart that is needed among the Whites?

No. The system of White supremacy has its roots in the cheap labour need of the major economic groups of the country. South Africa's economy is dominated by giant monopolies in the gold mining industry linked with big financial and farming interests, whose tentacles reach also into secondary industry. These groups have been responsible for the Reserve system, migratory labour, the low wage policy. These groups own and control the national wealth of our country and determine the basic structure of the South African state. It would be a dream to pretend that the changes of the Charter could be realisable if their economic grip were not loosened. Super-profits are incompatible with a sharing by the people in the wealth of the country. Migratory labour and the compound system cannot go hand in hand with the right of the worker to receive equal pay for equal work, his right to organise in trade unions, and so on.

There is another aspect. The mere acknowledgement in a phrase that the people shall have the right to own the land and to manufacture is of little value. The right to do these things is one thing: the opportunity is another. Over 300 years the system of White supremacy has resulted in the concentration of wealth in the hands of the present power group. To allow this wealth to remain in the hands of the monopolies is to condone the past, to perpetuate the lower economic status of the Non-Europeans.

First Tasks

Immediately after political changes have resulted in the establishment of the sort of government envisaged by the Charter, those in power will be faced with the major problem of raising the economic status of the Non-European and of doing away with the basic inequality of wealth which is part and parcel of the present system. White supremacy is not only an ideological catchphrase. In terms of the real lives of the mass of the people it has resulted in the accumulation of the basic wealth of the land in the hands of a small section of the White caste. As long as this balance remains undisturbed, the inferior status of the Non-European cannot be radically altered.

If tomorrow every discriminatory law on the statute book were repealed, but the mineral wealth, monopoly industry and financial empires were not transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole, the system of White superiority would in its basic essential be perpetuated for many generations. The wealth of South Africa cannot be created by law. It is there. If it is left in the hands of the present dominant groups the new state will, with a great deal of justification, be able to say it cannot 'afford' to provide education, to do away with slum conditions, and so on.

Not Socialism

Some are concerned that this solution is in advance of what should be the programme of a national liberatory struggle and that it might commit the national movements to a socialist aim.

Whatever one's views might be as to the desirability of establishing a socialist system in South Africa, the immediate aim of the liberatory movement is not and cannot be the establishment of socialism.

Does it therefore follow that the liberatory movement must automatically reject any part of a programme which happens to coincide with a section of that of socialists? If this were so then 'votes for all' and all the other basic aims of the liberatory movement would have to be scrapped. It is obvious that the sole test for the acceptability of an aim must be: Is it possible to implement the programme without the inclusion of this aim? In any event, socialism and the nationalisation of the basic wealth of a country are not synonymous terms. In South Africa today the railways are nationalised and serve the interests of the dominant group.

The Charter does not advocate the abolition of private enterprise, nor is it suggested that all industries be nationalised or that all trade be controlled by the state.

'All people shall have the right to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions', says the Charter. The right to do these things would remain a dead letter without the restoration of the basic wealth of the country to the people, and without that the building of a democratic state is inconceivable.


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