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Drawing up the Demands of the Freedom Charter

26 June 1955


The time comes for every radical movement when to talk of `freedom` is not enough. One has to paint a picture of it, give it substance, fill in the details.

We reached that moment in South Africa in 1955. Since the First World War there had been talk of `freedom` and of `liberation`. It had remained a vague promise somewhere over the horizon, a glow in the sky, nothing more. But now we felt the time was coming. Our movement was advancing at a rate undreamt of before. The African people were united solidly with the movement for freedom, against oppression. We had felt our strength in the Defiance Campaign. We were building an alliance with Indian and Coloured South Africans, starting to create bonds with the radical white minority. We felt we were coming to the crest of a hill, and that our freedom now lay so close to hand that we would see it for ourselves, `in our lifetime`, as we said.

It was no longer good enough to know only what we were against: apartheid, race discrimination, poverty, oppression. This was the enemy and we had all seen its face for ourselves, and learnt to oppose it relentlessly. This was what we were against. But what were we for? Freedom in our lifetime? What was this freedom? What was its shape and colour, and what would it be like to live in?

In 1954 we knew the time had come to give the `freedom` shadow a South African substance. We were going to draw the picture of our future in as much detail as we could.

This was the origin of the campaign for the Freedom Charter. As in all joint actions, the ANC took the lead. We put a plan before our allies in the other Congresses, and from it came the idea for a `Congress of the People`. The idea itself was simple enough. We, the political leaders of our people, would not simply give a directive as to the meaning of freedom. We would get the people to tell us. They would draw up a Freedom Charter as a guide for us. We would consult the people in town and country, in every occupation, and across all the race and colour barriers of oppression. We would ask what shape they wished to give the freedom that was coming. And finally, we would compile what they demanded into a single Charter. A simple idea: but we were not so simple as to believe that in South Africa it would be easy. What we were doing smacked too much of democracy. We were asking people to draw up their own constitution for the future — in a country where only one in six adults (whites only) had the right to vote. We were going to ask them to speak of freedom and its meaning — in a country which had never known free speech for the oppressed majority. And finally, we were going to ask them to send delegates to vote for that Charter of the future — in a country which had never known a freely-elected assembly of the nation`s representatives. What we were doing would be treason to white supremacy, treason to South African apartheid and reaction.

Speak of Freedom

Nevertheless, we did it. Bannings, banishments and proscriptions of our active workers and propagandists multiplied. Meetings were banned, gatherings disrupted by armed police, leaflets confiscated, posters torn down. War was declared on us. But we did it. We issued the `Call for the Congress of the People` to every group of people in the country: `We call the farmers. Let us speak of the rich lands and the people who are poor. Let us speak of Freedom!` That was the watchword, and the country rang with it: `Let us speak of Freedom!` And at thousands of gatherings, large and small, at factories and on farms, in suburban squares and at bus stops, in halls and under the sun, our active workers gathered the people together to speak of freedom.

As the terror gathered and the persecution grew more intense, the little slips of paper recording the talk of freedom at all these meetings began to flow back to campaign headquarters. `We want freedom to stay in our houses even when our men are unemployed`. `We want to be able to leave the farms to work in town`. `We want seed`. `We want a fifty-hour week`. `We want all children at school`. `We want ...`

The People Decide

For weeks, while the meetings talked, delegates were elected and money collected for fares, a Congress commission faithfully read, classified, indexed and grouped all the demands, all the thousands upon thousands of variously sized and variously coloured papers that came through precariously by hand. Could this be freedom, this claim `Our location superintendent must be sacked`? Or `Foremen must not swear at us`? The drafting commission sorted them all, grouped them, classified them.

And as the delegates prepared to travel to the Congress of the People, the substance began to emerge from the mountains of paper. Up to the very day of the Congress of the People — June 26, l955 — no one except the drafting committee saw the finished effort. It was revealed all in one piece, as a draft for the delegates, decision there at Kliptown in the Transvaal. Over three and a half thousand delegates made their way through the police roadblocks, the obstructions, arrests and difficulties, to take part in the discussions on the draft. The substance was read out amidst crashing cheers. This was the reality of freedom: our blueprint for our tomorrows.

We Shall Win With Arms

Here was our Freedom Charter proclaimed on the very day our freedom fighters had made their own by many epic struggles — June 26, Freedom Day. We proclaimed it proudly amidst cheers. Nothing could damp the day. Not the hundreds of police, standing all about the clearing where we sat. Not the Sten guns all around. Not the deliberate, drawn-out hooting by hostile loco-men, drowning out our speakers as their trains rolled by just beyond the speakers` rostrum.

And finally, not even the police raid made in massed force near the end of the day, with all the thousands of delegates surrounded, forced to give their names and addresses, surrender their papers, turn out their handbags and their pockets. Even then in the midst of that hostile army the day was ours. We sang endless freedom songs as they filled their little dossiers. It was our day, and freedom was just over the hill!

What we were doing was treason to apartheid and race oppression. This we knew. Within eighteen months, 156 of our most prominent people would be on trial for treason. Even now, when we are taking arms in our hands, we know freedom is there, and that we will see it in our lifetime. Now, we are stronger than we were, because we know the shape our freedom will take when we win it. It is in our Freedom Charter.