The Freedom Charter and the United Nations
24 May 1985
An unpublished paper by E. S. Reddy
The South African "Freedom Charter" - whose thirtieth anniversary will
be observed this year - was adopted at the "Congress of the People" held
in Kliptown, near Johannesburg, on June 26, 1955, perhaps the most representative
multi-racial conference held in South Africa. The sponsors of the Conference
- the African National Congress of South Africa, the South African Indian
Congress, the South African Coloured People’s Organisation and the Congress
of Democrats - soon endorsed the Charter and accepted it as their policy
document. In subsequent years, a number of other organisations subscribed
to the Charter.
The Charter became a powerful force in uniting the people of all racial
origins in a common struggle for the elimination of apartheid and the establishment
of a non-racial democratic state.
It has also had great influence in the United Nations and the international
community in promoting understanding and appreciation of the struggle.
The objectives enunciated by the United Nations in its declarations and
resolutions on apartheid are in harmony with the Freedom Charter.
Origin of the Freedom Charter
The origin of the Freedom Charter may be traced to the Campaign of Defiance
against Unjust Laws - a non-violent passive resistance campaign - launched
by the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress
on June 26, 1952. Over 8,000 people courted imprisonment by defying segregationist
laws and regulations. A number of whites joined the campaign to show their
solidarity with the oppressed majority.
The campaign was discontinued after the racist regime enacted draconian
legislation against non-violent protest, resorted to whipping of volunteers
and instigated violent incidents. But it had a tremendous effect in mobilising
the people. The membership of ANC surged to over 100,000 and its influence
spread all over the country. The campaign also led to the consideration
of apartheid by the United Nations General Assembly at the request of Asian-African
States and to the development of organisations in Western countries in
support of the struggle for freedom in South Africa.
The ANC then faced the task of maintaining the momentum generated by
the Defiance Campaign and developing new forms of struggle.
At the annual conference of the Cape region of the ANC in August 1953,
Professor Z.K. Matthews suggested the convening of a Congress of the People
to draw up a Freedom Charter. He said:
"I wonder whether the time has not come for the African National Congress
to consider the question of convening a national convention, a congress
of the people, representing all the people of this country irrespective
of race or colour, to draw up a Freedom Charter for the democratic South
Africa of the future".The proposal was sent to the national conference of ANC in December and
was approved by it. At the invitation of the ANC, the South African Indian
Congress, the Coloured People’s Organisation and the Congress of Democrats
agreed to co-sponsor the Congress and joined a Joint Action Committee set
up for preparatory work.
At the request of Chief Albert Lutuli, President-General of ANC, Professor
Matthews prepared a memorandum on the proposed Congress in which he said:
"The main task of the Congress will be to draw up a ‘Freedom Charter`
for all people and groups in South Africa. From such a Congress ought to
come a Declaration which will inspire all the peoples of South Africa with
fresh hope for the future, which will turn the minds of the people away
from the sterile and negative struggles of the past and the present to
a positive programme of freedom in our lifetime. Such a Charter properly
conceived as a mirror of the future South African society can galvanise
the people of South Africa into action and make them go over into the offensive
against the reactionary forces at work in this country, instead of being
perpetually on the defensive, fighting rearguard actions all the time."While the proposal thus arose from the dynamics of the struggle in South
Africa, perhaps concern for mobilising support of world opinion also played
Professor Matthews had been teaching at the Union Theological Seminary
in New York during the Defiance Campaign and had followed the discussion
of apartheid in the United Nations General Assembly. In December 1952, the
Assembly set up a United Nations Commission on the Racial Situation in
the Union of South Africa (UNCORS) to study the situation and report. It
also adopted a resolution, submitted by Nordic countries, declaring that
in a multiracial society harmony and respect for human rights and freedoms
are best assured when patterns of legislation and practice were directed
at ensuring equality before the law of all persons.
In its first annual report of October 3, 1953, the Commission
recommended to the General Assembly:
"The United Nations might suggest ways and means in which the Union
might draw up a new policy: for example, a round table conference of members
of different ethnic groups of the Union, which would, in an effort toward
conciliation, make proposals to the Government to facilitate the peaceful
development of the racial situation in the Union of South Africa. The United
Nations might offer its help to that conference by sending a number of
United Nations representatives, so that all parties might be sure that
the Principles of the Charter would guide the debates."In a joint memorandum to UNCORS in 1954, the African National Congress
of South Africa and the South African Indian Congress referred to this
recommendation and said: "In view of the intransigence of the Union Government it is almost
impossible to expect such a recommendation receiving a favourable response
from Dr. Malan`s Government in the foreseeable future.
"However, the African National Congress has taken initiative in the
matter and together with the South African Indian Congress, the South African
Congress of Democrats and the South African Coloured People`s Organisation
is proposing to convene a Congress of the People by not later than June
"For the first time in the history of South Africa all racial groups are
co-operating to bring about an assembly elected directly by the people
throughout the country to frame a Freedom Charter embodying the demands
and aspirations of all sections of the South African population."The Commission noted this initiative with satisfaction. It devoted a section
of its report to the General Assembly in 1955 to the Congress of the People,
and reproduced the full text of the "Freedom Charter" unanimously adopted
by the Congress.
Two months before the Congress of the People, in April 1955, the
Asian-African Conference was held in Bandung, Indonesia, and was attended
by all independent States in the two continents. The convenors excluded
the Union of South Africa from the list of invitees. A delegation from
South Africa, composed of Moses Kotane of ANC and Molvi Cachalia of the
South African Indian Congress, attended the Conference as observers and
met with many of the Heads of State or Government of Asia and Africa.
The Declaration of the Conference condemned apartheid and all manifestations
of racial discrimination. It said:
"2. The Asian-African Conference deplored the policies and practices
of racial segregation and discrimination which form the basis of government
and human relations in large regions of Africa and in other parts of the
world. Such conduct is not only a gross violation of human rights, but
also a denial of the fundamental values of civilisation and the dignity
"The Conference extended its warm sympathy and support for the courageous
stand taken by the victims of racial discrimination, especially by the
peoples of African and Indian and Pakistani origin in South Africa; applauded
all those who sustain their cause; reaffirmed the determination of Asian-African
peoples to eradicate every trace of racialism that might exist in their
own countries; and pledged to use its full moral influence to guard against
the danger of falling victims to the same evil in their struggle to eradicate
This Declaration and the consultations could not but have some influence
on the Congress of the People.
The Freedom Charter, it may be said, was addressed not only to the people
of South Africa but to the world.
Freedom Charter and the Declarations of the United Nations
The Freedom Charter is in harmony with the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations on December 10, 1948. The
Pretoria regime abstained in the vote on the Universal Declaration, but
it was endorsed by the ANC and became the policy of several South African
organisations committed to freedom and equality.
Many declarations and resolutions of the United Nations reflect the
essence of the Freedom Charter - namely, that South Africa belongs to all
the people who live in it and that the people should enjoy equal rights
and opportunities, including the right to vote, and be elected to legislative
bodies, in a democratic State without distinction of colour, race, sex
The following are illustrative:
"Recognises the legitimacy of the struggle of the South African
people for the elimination of apartheid and for the establishment of a
democratic society in which all the people of South Africa as a whole,
irrespective of race, colour, or creed, will enjoy equal and full political
and other rights and participate freely in the determination of their destiny." - Resolution 473 (1980), adopted unanimously by the Security Council
on June 13, 1980"Reaffirming that all the people of South Africa, irrespective of
race, colour or creed, should be enabled to exercise their right of self-determination,
Convinced that the establishment of a non-racial society in South
Africa, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, would be a
significant contribution to international peace, security and co-operation,
Adopts the following Declaration:
DECLARATION ON SOUTH AFRICA
- All States shall recognise the legitimacy of the struggle of the South
African people for the elimination of apartheid and the establishment of
a non-racial society guaranteeing the enjoyment of equal rights by all
the people of South Africa, irrespective of race, colour or creed…"
- Resolution 34/93-0 entitled "Declaration on South Africa" adopted
unanimously by the General Assembly on December 12, 1979United Nations publicity for the Freedom Charter
The United Nations has, moreover, taken steps to make Freedom Charter
widely known around the world.
The text of the Freedom Charter was reproduced in the third report of
UNCORS to the General Assembly in 1955. It was published as a document
of the Security Council, at the request of the delegation of Benin in October
1977 as document S/12425.
The United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid - and, at its
request, the Centre against Apartheid - have repeatedly taken action to
publicise the Charter.
On June 26, 1969, the Special Committee requested the Secretariat to
take the necessary steps to make the Freedom Charter more widely known
around the world. The Unit on Apartheid then published the text of the
Freedom Charter and other relevant information in its "Notes and Documents"
series. The issue was reprinted in June 1970 to meet the demand in connection
with the Observance of the fifteenth anniversary of the Charter.
At the suggestion of the Special Committee, the World Peace Council
published the Freedom Charter in many languages with introductions by successive
chairmen of the Special Committee. The Solidarity Committee of the German
Democratic Republic produced a poster based on the Freedom Charter in co-operation
with the Centre against Apartheid. A number of other organisations published
the Charter with the encouragement of the Special Committee.
The Centre against Apartheid itself published the Charter in a brochure
in June 1979 for distribution in connection with the twenty-fifth anniversary
of the Charter, and the brochure has been reprinted to meet continuing
EXTRACT FROM THE THIRD REPORT OF THE UNITED NATIONS
COMMISSION ON THE RACIAL SITUATION IN THE UNION OF
SOUTH AFRICA, 1955
(Official Records of the General Assembly, Tenth Session, Supplement
No. 14, A/2953)
X. Activities of the African National Congress ("Congress of
the People", 25 and 26 June 1955)
291. In its 1954 report, the Commission mentioned that the African National
Congress, together with the South African Indian Congress, the Congress
of Democrats and the Coloured People`s Organisation, had taken the initiative
in convening a "Congress of the People" (A/2719, para 203). This Congress
was to meet not later than June 1955. For the first time in the
history of South Africa, all racial groups were to co-operate to bring
about an assembly directly elected by the people throughout the country,
with the object of framing a "Freedom Charter", embodying the demands and
aspirations of all sections of the South African population.
292. The preparation of this Congress was the principal object of the
42nd Annual Conference of the African National Congress held at Durban
from 16 to 19 December 1954, and attended by about 500 people. It
was decided, inter alia:
"The Congress of the People will not be just another meeting or another
Conference. It will be a mass assembly of delegates elected by the people
of all races in every town, village, farm, factory, mine and kraal.
It will be the biggest single gathering of spokesmen ever known in this
country. The representatives of the people who come to the Congress will
consider the detailed demands of the people which have been sent in for
incorporation in the Freedom Charter, and will embody them into a declaration.
This Freedom Charter will be the South African Peoples’ Declaration of
Human Rights, which every civilised South African will work to uphold and
carry into practice."Although the date and place of the meeting of this Congress were left open
for the time being, the Conference took various decisions concerning its
organisation, such as: the establishment of a corps of "Freedom Volunteers,"
who would be at the disposal of the campaign organisers to carry out any
work which might be required of them, no matter where; the formation of
Peoples’ Congress committees at the provincial level, with sub-committees
for the towns, suburbs, factories and streets; the manner of electing representatives,
on the basis of one vote for every person over 18 years of age, without
distinction of race, colour or sex; and the collection of funds to defray
the delegates’ travelling expenses.
In the words of an article which appeared in Indian Opinion,
over the signature of Jordan K. Ngubane:
"The Conference was unique also in the way in which it was essentially
a young people’s conference. They grasped the actualities of the situation
with a keenness and understanding which the greyheads did not have only
twenty years ago. But what was most inspiring here was that at every stage
the young people made it plain, in their speeches, their conduct and their
decisions, that they were consciously creating for themselves a world after
their own design. He is an idiot and a fool who still says that African
Youth is not aware of its responsibilities."293. The "Congress of the People" took place on 25 and 26 June at Kliptown,
Various messages were read, including a telegram from Mr. U.N.
Dhebar, President of the Indian National Congress, worded as follows:
"It is indeed a great pleasure for us to know that the African National
Congress, South African Indian Congress, South African Congress of Democrats
and the South African Coloured Peoples’ Organisation are jointly convening
a great assembly of elected representatives of the people of South Africa
for the purpose of drawing up a Freedom Charter on 25 and 26 June. "This united front on the part of the oppressed is really praiseworthy
and we are sure this will bring your peaceful struggle for elementary human
rights to a successful end very soon.
"You are aware that the people and the Government of India
are firmly opposed to the discriminatory policy followed by the South African
Government. We believe strongly that this type of thing cannot continue
for long in this modern democratic world, and your endeavour is bound to
meet with success.
"May God give you patience and mental strength which are most vital
things for carrying on a non-violent struggle.
"We extend to you our moral support and wish you all success."
Mr. Chou En-lai, Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China, had
sent a telegram with the following text: "On behalf of the Chinese people, I warmly greet the meeting of the
Congress of the People and wish that the Congress will achieve new success
in uniting the people of different origins and all sections in South Africa
to oppose racial discrimination and to win freedom and democratic rights.
"The Asian-African conference has solemnly condemned colonialism and
racial discrimination. The Chinese people, together with the peoples of
other Asian and African countries and the people of the whole world, will
continue to support the just struggle waged by the people of South Africa."
294. The following are the most striking passages in the description of
the Congress by Manilal Gandhi in the newspaper of which he is the editor: "Its grand success was beyond all expectations. It would not be amiss
to say that never in recent history of South Africa is such a representative
meeting of the oppressed people known to have been held. And it was held
under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. For what did the Government
not do to prevent it? ...
"There were 2,888 delegates from throughout the Union of South Africa
present at the meeting despite the fact that about two hundred were prevented
by the authorities at Beaufort West in the Cape Province and at Standerton
in the Transvaal Province from proceeding to the meeting, under the pretext
of not being in possession of permits required under the Immigration Law
or passes under the Native Pass Laws ...
"Besides these delegates there had assembled at this meeting over three
thousand of the public.
"The police, both European and African, and a squad of men from the
Special Branch were present at the meeting from the beginning to the end.
Notwithstanding that provocative act, it must be said to the credit of
the public that they were not sullen and angry but were happy and gay during
the whole session. The weather too had been exceptionally kind ...
"After the preliminary work had been done the draft Freedom Charter
was taken clause by clause and speeches were made on it.
"There was justifiable emotion in the speeches made. It was a demonstration
of the physical, mental and spiritual torture suffered by a vast majority
of the people in this so-called democratic country ...
"Things went on very smoothly until after lunch which was served to
all the delegates between 2 and 3 p.m. during which period the whole crowd
was entertained with songs and music.
"Then, half an hour after the afternoon session commenced, between 3.30
and 4 p.m., all of a sudden it was announced from the platform that armed
police were coming towards the platform and that the people should remain
"Then while the delegates on the platform were being searched the police
stood by below with sten guns just ready for orders to shoot. They had
a wild look on their faces. Some jeered at the delegates and while the
delegates were shouting ‘Africa’ with their thumbs up some of the police
were responding with their thumbs down ...
"Once again it was to the credit of the organisers and to the vast assembly
that they refused to be intimidated and kept their heads and proceeded
with the remaining work ...
"The whole draft Freedom Charter was then passed with acclamation and
with the singing of the African National anthem, ‘Nkosi Sikelele’ with the representatives of the Government being present on the platform
as though to bear witness to it. It was all an act of God ...
"And then the searching of the three thousand delegates began ...
"Every delegate was searched and his name and address was taken and
all the papers connected with the proceedings of the meeting were taken
"Every European was, in addition, photographed. Searching went on till
a little after 8 p.m.
"The ideals set out in the Charter of Freedom cannot be taken exception
to by anybody. It is not possible to reach the highest ideal all at once.
We can reach it by stages during which it may be necessary to come to some
honourable compromise with a Government that is reasonable. There can be
no compromise where reason is completely absent and unreasonableness, stark
injustice and tyranny are the order of the day."
STATEMENT BY H. E. MR. ABDULRAHIM ABBY FARAH (SOMALIA), CHAIRMAN
OF THE SPECIAL COMMITTEE AGAINST APARTHEID, AT THE MEETING OF THE COMMITTEE
ON JUNE 26, 1969
Today, 26 June, is traditionally observed by the African National Congress
of South Africa and its associate organisations, as well as by many other
bodies, including anti-apartheid movements and various international organisations,
as "South Africa Freedom Day."
26 June was so designated because it was on 26 June 1950 that the first
national stay-at-home strike was organised as a mark of protest against
the Suppression of Communism Act and other undemocratic and unjust legislation.
It was, again, on 26 June 1952, that the historic Campaign of Defiance
of Unjust Laws was launched. But above all, 26 June was chosen as "South
Africa Freedom Day" as it commemorates the historic adoption, on 26 June
1955, of the Freedom Charter by the Congress of the People of South Africa,
a multi-racial conference of the opponents of apartheid and racial discrimination.
The Freedom Charter, describing the democratic and humanist aspirations
of the oppressed people of South Africa, is a historic document which is
in full harmony with the purposes and principles of the United Nations
and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and relevant resolutions
of United Nations organs. It sets out the democratic changes required to
enable all the people of South Africa to live in brotherhood, enjoying
equal rights and opportunities without distinction of colour, race, sex
Its preamble reads:
"WE, THE PEOPLE OF SOUTH AFRICA, DECLARE FOR ALL OUR COUNTRY AND THE
WORLD TO KNOW:
- that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white,
and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on
the will of all the people;
- that our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty
and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality;
- that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people
live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities;
- that only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people,
can secure to all their birthrights without distinction of colour, race,
sex or belief;
And therefore, we the people of South Africa, black and white together
- equals, countrymen and brothers - adopt this Freedom Charter. And we
pledge ourselves to strive together, sparing neither strength nor courage,
until the democratic changes set out here have been won."
These are the objectives of the struggle of the South African people -
a struggle which the United Nations General Assembly has recognised as
legitimate and as deserving international support.
26 June, South Africa Freedom Day, should be a day for rededication
to the cause of freedom, to the legitimate struggle of the South African
It should be a day to pause and pay our respect to all those who have
lost their lives in the course of the struggle and those who have been
imprisoned, interned or subjected to other restrictions for having opposed
the policies of apartheid.
This is a day to renew our demand for the release of people like Nelson
Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Dennis Goldberg and
Raymond Mhlaba, who have been serving sentences of life imprisonment because
they stood up for the principles of the Freedom Charter, the principles
of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and
for the release of others like Abram Fischer who are in jail because of
their opposition to apartheid and because of their courageous support of
the struggle for freedom.
In a statement issued on the occasion of the South Africa Freedom Day,
the African National Congress has called upon the international community
to stand up to the demands of the South African revolution and to give
moral, political and material aid to the liberation movement. The United
Nations has already recognised the legitimacy of these demands. They are
enshrined in the Freedom Charter which, I repeat, is in full accord with
the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
I feel that the Freedom Charter should be more widely known to the world
public opinion. I would suggest that the Unit on Apartheid be requested
to take the necessary steps to this end.
STATEMENT BY H.E. MR. EDWIN OGEBE OGBU, CHAIRMAN OF THE SPECIAL COMMITTEE
AGAINST APARTHEID, AT THE MEETING OF THE COMMITTEE ON JUNE 24, 1974
… I must draw the attention of the Special Committee to the fact that
today, 26 June, is annually observed by the African National Congress of
South Africa and allied organisations as South Africa Freedom Day.
Many of the campaigns of the liberation movement have been launched
on this day - beginning with the nation-wide protests against apartheid
laws on June 26, 1950. The historic Campaign of Defiance against
Unjust Laws in which 8,000 people went to jail was inaugurated on June
26, 1952, and it was that campaign which led to the consideration
of apartheid by the United Nations General Assembly.
The Congress of the People, with nearly 3,000 representatives of the
African, Indian and Coloured people - as well as white opponents of apartheid
- was held on 26 June 1955 and adopted the "Freedom Charter" which
represents the aspirations and demands of all the people of South Africa,
except the racists.
That historic document declared that "South Africa belongs to all who
live in it, black and white" and that "no government can justly claim authority
unless it is based on the will of all the people."
On this day, the South African people pledge that they will fight for
the freedoms enunciated in that Charter until they have won their liberty.
They have observed the Freedom Day, even under the conditions of illegality
in the past decade, at great risk.
The Freedom Day is, for us, an occasion to pledge our solidarity with
the people of South Africa until they have secured their inalienable right
It is significant that the South Africa Freedom Day coincides with the
anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter. This coincidence
shows the faith of the freedom fighters of South Africa in the principles
of the United Nations. It reminds the United Nations of its obligation
to assist the people of South Africa to secure their freedom from racist
I am sure that I am expressing the sentiments of all the members of
this Committee in declaring that the Special Committee renews its pledge
to discharge its duty, to the best of its ability, in support of the struggle
of the South African people until they win their liberty and join the community
of nations, and the community of independent African States, as a State
of all the people who live in that country.
INTRODUCTION BY H.E. MR. EDWIN OGEBE OGBU, CHAIRMAN OF THE SPECIAL
COMMITTEE AGAINST APARTHEID, TO THE PUBLICATION OF THE FREEDOM CHARTER
BY THE WORLD PEACE COUNCIL IN 1975
The Freedom Charter, adopted by the Congress of the People in South
Africa on 26 June 1955 - South Africa Freedom Day and the anniversary
of the founding of the United Nations - is a document which reflects the
noble objectives of the heroic struggle of the people of South Africa for
freedom, human dignity and international co-operation.
This struggle has been an inspiration far beyond the borders of South
Africa and has made a great contribution to mankind’s efforts towards freedom,
international co-operation and peace.
All governments and peoples who value human solidarity have a sacred
duty to lend all necessary support to the South African people in their
just struggle - so that South Africa may play its rightful role in the
community of nations.
MESSAGE BY H.E. MR. B. AKPORODE CLARK, CHAIRMAN OF THE SPECIAL COMMITTEE
AGAINST APARTHEID, TO THE ANC, ON THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF FREEDOM CHARTER,
JUNE 26, 1980
I have great pleasure in sending you my greetings, on behalf of the
United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid, on the occasion of
the South Africa Freedom Day which coincides this year with the 25th anniversary
of the adoption of the Freedom Charter.
The Freedom Charter, I may recall, was adopted by the Congress of the
People in 1955, seven years after the apartheid regime came to power in
South Africa and enacted a series of draconian measures to institutionalise
racist domination and to suppress by force the legitimate aspirations of
the black people in violation of the United Nations Charter and the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights.
It is to its great credit that when the apartheid regime was provoking
bitterness and hatred along racial lines and particularly against the black
majority of the population of the Republic, the African National Congress
of South Africa convened a conference to adopt a Charter for the rights
of all the people of South Africa, irrespective of race, colour or creed.
It thereby proved that the struggle of the African people is indeed for
the liberation of all the people of South Africa from racist tyranny and
for the establishment of a genuinely democratic State.
The Freedom Charter assisted world public opinion to understand and
admire the righteous struggle of the oppressed people of South Africa.
In the hard and difficult struggle against a ruthless regime backed by
greedy and powerful forces from abroad, the Charter has enabled the liberation
struggle to increasingly obtain the solidarity and support of the great
majority of humanity.
I note with great appreciation that in spite of the increasing savagery
of the racist regime, the African National Congress and its allied organisations
have continued to uphold the principles of the Freedom Charter.
Today, as the South African people enter the final and decisive stage
of their struggle for emancipation, it is only right that their legitimate
aspirations should be made clear to the entire world.
In its determination to fulfill those aspirations - in peace if possible
and by armed resistance if necessary - the national liberation movement
deserves the unequivocal support of all men and women of conscience.
I wish you success.