Imagine a binding Charter for America that reads, “We, the People of United States, declare for all our country and the world to know: That United States belongs to all who live in it, black and white…that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities (that) The preaching and practice of national, race or colour discrimination and contempt shall be a punishable crime” This kind of simple and straight forward Charter could save America its race problems and the continuous craziness of police and white supremacists murdering black and coloured peoples.
Yet all I did above was to paraphrase the South African Freedom Charter; one of the most profound and famous documents ever produced by humanity. Its relevance today, to America and all multiracial societies, is proof of the efficacy and the deep thoughts that gave birth to it, sixty years ago, precisely on June 26, 1955. Yet, the Freedom Charter is not essentially about race; it is about true freedom and democracy.
Not the prevalent democracy of the rich, by the rich for the rich, but mass participatory democracy in which the will of the people prevail. It is about a non- exploitative society where social justice reigns. Just as I paraphrased it for America, it can also be for any other society. It could read like “Nigeria belongs to all who live in it, nationalities and ethnicities…” It is perhaps the most profound political manifesto Africa has given the world. Unlike the 1215 Magna Carta which was essentially a truce drawn up by the Archbishop of Canterbury wellbetween an unwilling King and suspicious barons, the Charter is a manifesto of the generality of the people with universal applicability. It reads like the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights except that it has more profound economic implications and less ambiguity. As a Nigerian anti-Apartheid youth, my initial reaction to the Freedom Charter was that it sounded too much like the Christian teaching of Love Thy Enemy; if you are slapped on one cheek, turn the other.
For me, and many of my friends, South Africa was a Colonial Question, and like the colonialists were expelled from Africa countries following independence, and the white settlers from Algeria and Kenya, they must be sent out of South Africa. If Europe is for Europeans, Africa must be for Africans. So how can we take serious, a manifesto declaring that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white? It was no surprise that many South Africans led by Robert Sobukwe left the African National Congress (ANC) in protest. To them, The Freedom Charter was a sell-out. Ironically, it was to the Apartheid regime, a coup speech; a document of high treason. Indeed, when some ANC leaders were arrested and charged with attempting to overthrow the Government and impose a communist system, the evidence produced in court, was the Freedom Charter! The idea of the Charter was that of Professor Zachariah Keodirelang (Z.K) Mathews who, convinced that the Apartheid regime would soon move to crush liberation organisations, suggested a Congress of the People to produce a Freedom Charter which “would reshape the liberation struggle” The idea was to produce a minimum programme to which all South Africans can subscribe; a shared vision and a vehicle of struggle.
Once sold on the idea, the ANC in 1955 mobilized some fifty thousand volunteers to fan across the country, collating the views and demands of the people. These were then collated by a committee, and handwritten by activist, Mrs Beata Lipman. To validate it, about three thousand delegates from the ANC, the South African Indian Congress and the South African Congress of Democrats gathered in Kliptown on June 25, 1955. The Charter was read in full and debated. The second day of the Congress was well underway when the Apartheid police broke it up by force.
Nelson Mandela, the future first president of an independent South Africa, attended the Congress disguised as a milkman because he was under banning orders and would automatically have been imprisoned if caught attending a political gathering. The Freedom Charter included the right to vote or be voted for, participation in governance and end to discrimination in any form whether race, sex, colour or belief. It also had equal rights in schools, courts, language, culture and in collective wealth.
One of its most profound articles states that “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole” The failure of the ANC to implement this, after twenty one years in power is partly responsible for the mass poverty and frustration in the country. Another fundamental provision states: “Restrictions of land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and the land re-distributed amongst those who work it to banish famine and land hunger” This was an essential provision given the fact that 87 percent of all lands were seized in 1913 from the blacks and given to the whites.
Indeed, the liberation struggle was essentially about land. But the post-Apartheid settlement, guarantees whites lands under private ownership. The only way open, is the purchase of lands from unwilling and greedy landowners. This remains a sore point in both South Africa and Namibia. Only Zimbabwe, led by Robert Mugabe has succeeded in land re-distribution in the area. For this, that country has been under permanent and ceaseless economic, financial, political and misinformation bombardment by the ‘international community’ Other provisions include “the right and duty of all to work, and to draw full employment benefits” free, compulsory, equal and universal education, right to medical care and decent housing. Another, is a commitment to world peace and the settlement of all international disputes by negotiation – not war. The Freedom Charter contains the seeds of an equitable, egalitarian and non-exploitative world based on peace, freedom and social justice for all; but in a universe controlled by a few, it portends danger.