South Africa’s Freedom Charter Was a Landmark in the Global Struggle Against Racism

The ANC’s Freedom Charter guided the struggle against white supremacy in South Africa, linking the questions of political and economic freedom. The origins of the charter — and the uses to which it was put — are rich with lessons for anti-racist struggles today.

The Freedom Charter was notable precisely for its insistence that economic and political rights were equally important. (Eli Weinberg / UWC Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

In June 1955, one of the most important events in the history of the South African freedom struggle took place. The Congress of the People assembled in a shabby field in Kliptown, a suburb of what would later be called Soweto. The main purpose of the event was to debate and ratify a “Freedom Charter” — a statement to the world about the character of a future South Africa freed from the shackles of white supremacy.

The document has obvious significance as the creed of the African National Congress (ANC), one of the most important liberation movements of the twentieth century. But the Freedom Charter also offers important philosophical and strategic insights for everyone on the left.

Influenced by the ideas of the liberal Enlightenment, the charter nevertheless transcends liberalism in crucial ways. Insisting on freedom, equality, and universal rights, the document is nevertheless quite specific — just where liberalism is abstract and evasive — about the material conditions that would be needed to make these rights meaningful.

The Roots of Apartheid

The Freedom Charter came at a particular time in South African history and its composition reflects that. Conventional wisdom often presents the system of white supremacy and black dispossession that characterized South Africa in the last century as a unique perversion dreamed up by Afrikaners, the white, Afrikaans-speaking population of the country (Afrikaans being a Dutch creole spoken by various groups in South Africa).

In fact, the various British-linked administrations that governed the country in the first half of the twentieth century had already established most of the tenets of the system that became known as apartheid. They had stripped blacks of the right to vote, to own land outside of tiny impoverished reserves, and to live in towns without a specific job-related accreditation called a “pass.”

All of this had an economic underpinning. In a rough-and-ready way, the racist history of twentieth-century South Africa can be understood as a compromise between different branches of white capital. Big capital, associated with the English-speaking white population, wanted sufficient black labor to work in the towns, and above all in the gold mines and other industries around Johannesburg. Afrikaner landowners wanted black farm laborers to be plentiful and cheap.

The arrival of the National Party with its Afrikaner support base and its rise to power in 1948 did not alter these underlying forces. However, there were changes. The formal system of apartheid ushered in a vast scheme of positive discrimination for white Afrikaans-speakers, triggering an influx of the barely educated white rural poor into reserved government jobs.

There was a graphic illustration of this trend during the Rivonia Trial, when Nelson Mandela and his comrades were in the dock, accused of treason. Prison guards who had benefitted from this affirmative-action program began to ask Mandela and his fellow detainees for help writing the essays they needed to submit in order to progress through the ranks of the service.

A Break With Liberalism

More importantly, the new regime — most of whose leaders had supported the Nazis during the Second World War — had no commitment to the vestiges of liberalism that earlier administrations had allowed, especially when it came to political expression and the separation of powers.

The Communist Party of South Africa was one of the first to bear the brunt of this repressive turn. While the party’s fortunes had waxed and waned since its founding in 1921, by the 1940s, it had a well-established multiracial membership, the majority of whom were black. In 1950, the Nationalist government brought in sweeping legislation to crush the Communist Party.

In a bid to frustrate this move, the party formally disbanded itself three days before the law was due to take effect. The decision to disband remains controversial to this day; in any case, it soon re-formed as an underground organization (now called the South African Communist Party or SACP).

The party’s formal dissolution accelerated trends that were already underway. Above all, it led to greater collaboration with the ANC and the Indian National Congress, two organizations that were by then the major vehicles for opposition to apartheid.

At the same time, the internal politics of the ANC itself were shifting. A new generation of leaders had grown impatient with the perceived gradualism and deference of the movement’s elders. For much of the 1940s, this tendency, centered on the ANC’s new Youth League, had an Africanist orientation. Writing in 1946, its chief ideologue Anton Lembede stated that “Africa is a black man’s country.”

Although Lembede was sympathetic to a vaguely defined form of socialism, he believed that a black African identity must be the fundamental axis of national liberation. He saw the proponents of non-racial collaboration and class struggle as enemies — at several points in the 1940s, Youth Leaguers attempted to have communists expelled from the ANC.

Lembede died in 1947, but his legacy lived on in the Youth League. His protégés included a triumvirate of new leaders who would change the course of South African history: Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Nelson Mandela. It was the oldest of the three, Sisulu, who defined the next phase in ANC thinking. Sisulu had joined Lembede in pushing for the expulsion of communists from the congress in the 1940s. By the end of the decade, however, his views were changing.

One can adduce biographical reasons for this change: unlike Mandela or Tambo, Sisulu never went to university. He had pulled himself into the ranks of the black professional classes after a succession of manual jobs, including a stint working as a miner in the 1930s. As a miner, he came into contact with an earlier wave of radical trade unionism that organized black South Africans as workers.

Sisulu’s absent biological father was also white, although this did him no favors with the racist state. But his experience of ANC organizing in concert with Indian and white activists in the late 1940s appears to have been more important. Almost all of these activists — and an increasing number of ANC cadres — were communists. By the mid 1950s, Sisulu himself had also joined the party.


The defiance campaign, begun in 1952, was one of the fruits of this new thinking. It was a campaign of mass civil disobedience, where activists sought arrest by using facilities such as train carriages or counters specifically reserved for other races (most often for whites). The new approach combined a willingness to mobilize the masses in “impolite” forms of protest with an active embrace of cross-racial coalitions.

This turn also led to the formation of the Congress of Democrats — essentially the white branch of the Congress movement — and the Coloured Peoples’ Congress (“coloured” was the term used to describe the non-white, predominantly Afrikaans-speaking populations who are a majority in the Western Cape). This created an apparent paradox, not fully resolved until the 1990s, whereby the movement that led the opposition to apartheid reproduced the state’s own racial categories.

In 1954, representatives of all the Congress organizations met up to plan their next move. One delegate, Z. K. Matthews, proposed that a “congress of the people” be held, at which a “freedom charter” could be debated and ratified.

It was no accident that Matthews should have proposed this idea, with its echoes of England’s Magna Carta and the US Constitutional Convention. He was the head of Fort Hare, South Africa’s first black university, which counted both Mandela and Tambo amongst its alumni. Matthews was a stalwart of the movement, but also, in the words of Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, “the most conventional, respectable, and thoroughly bourgeois activist…”

Underpinning what was to become the radicalism of the Freedom Charter, there was an ostensibly bourgeois, constitutionalist model of politics associated with figures like Matthews — harking back to an earlier era of ANC activism, one that partly sought to convince white interlocutors that a black elite, well versed in the heritage of “English liberty,” was ready for a share of power.

Working through the night, a committee cut this proposal down to manageable size. Its members included the up-and-coming Youth Leaguer Nelson Mandela, as well as the war veteran and communist architect Rusty Bernstein.

Matthews had suggested that the Congress should compile a non-racial voters’ roll. To compensate for dropping that idea, the committee added a crucial innovation: the charter would draw on “a nationwide campaign to persuade people everywhere to formulate their own proposals for the content of a Freedom Charter.”

The Congress of the People would also be open to delegates from any and all organizations. After the meeting, Bernstein drafted the call for submissions. Wrestling with the task, the slogan “let us speak of freedom” came to him, and with that, the rest of the call fell into place. An army of activists carried the message to thousands of meetings throughout the land.

Submissions drifted in, often written on the back of the same handbill as the original call, eventually numbering thousands of scraps of paper. Feeding and housing the Congress of the People delegates, while evading the state’s ever more intrusive agencies, was an organizational nightmare. The scraps were read briefly, then stuffed into a trunk while the organizers dealt with more pressing matters.

According to Bernstein, one of the problems was that “most of the ‘demands’ were not at all as we imagined them — at least not in the written form in which they reached us: most were one-liners dealing with a single issue of daily life, jobs, living standards, civil liberties.” In retrospect, however, this was a great strength.

Tangible Freedom

The document draws on the soaring rhetoric of the Enlightenment, particularly the US Declaration of Independence. However, freedom as defined in Kliptown was not abstract, but earthy and plebeian.

This applied even where the charter dealt with the “negative liberty” so often stressed by classical liberalism. It is hard to imagine the founding fathers defining freedom as the right not to have your cattle stolen, or not to be paid in cheap alcohol (the charter includes a reference to the notorious “dop” system that obliged workers in wine-growing regions to receive part of their wages in the latter form).

This concrete, popular definition of liberty contributed to an even more important aspect of the charter. Freedom cannot simply be formal: the principles of equality before the law, or one-man-one-vote, rely upon economic freedom to make them real. The charter insisted that health care, education, decent housing, nationalization of the mines and industrial monopolies, and a fair share of national wealth and of the land for those who work it were all just as essential to our liberty.

The liberal Enlightenment had posited an abstract and imaginary subject (“all men were created equal”). In contrast, the charter addressed real people living in a history that had created winners and losers. “Our people,” it told us, “have been robbed of their birth right.”

As Bernstein recalled, he dedicated most of his energy to distilling the comments of thousands of people into a set of clear themes, listed in the charter’s clauses. He then composed the more rhetorical preamble and conclusion quickly without much agonizing. Yet the preamble had immediate repercussions.

The statement that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white,” was by then the standard position of the ANC–Congress alliance. As James Moroka, then president of the ANC, and Walter Sisulu had written prior to the defiance campaign, their struggle was not “directed against any race or national group, but against unjust laws which keep in subjection and misery vast sections of the population.”

However, Bernstein’s succinct phrase, along with the charter’s general emphasis on a non-racial South Africa, inflamed Africanists within the ANC. It helped pave the way for the formation of the breakaway Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959. The PAC and its leader Robert Sobukwe argued that Africa was for (black) Africans. This emphasis of the charter on non-racialism also placed the Congress alliance at odds with many later forms of black radicalism, from Guinea’s Sékou Touré to Stokely Carmichael.

Toward the People

There is much that was accidental in the form that the charter took. Many of its most innovative features took shape as compromises, and the working party unsuccessfully tried to solicit input from a wider pool of white liberal and even conservative groups. However, the document and the Congress ultimately represented something that both the SACP and the ANC had been grasping toward throughout the 1940s and ’50s.

Both were centralized and relatively elitist organizations, with the ANC very clearly composed of a black elite — urban, educated, and often professional. The Communist Party did not come close to reflecting the makeup of the country either, even in urban areas. The 1940s had seen an impressive level of communist engagement in national campaigns, but with little input from the lower strata of the proletariat, a group that would surely be central to revolutionary change in a country like South Africa.

While activists had played a key role in events like the 1946 miners’ strike, the party had also watched cautiously from the sidelines as the urban poor organized a squatters’ movement that swept through Johannesburg in the 1940s. The defiance campaign, the Congress of the People, and the Freedom Charter sought to address this shortcoming.

It was the people who would provide the energy needed to win freedom, having first defined such freedom in their own terms. Within a few years, however, a combination of state repression and the leadership’s struggle to respond to such coercive pressure would drive the Congress alliance away from this new vision.


After the Congress of the People was over, the state brought charges of treason against 156 activists. The Freedom Charter was a central plank for the prosecution case. However, the move was premature, as the regime did not yet have the powers of repression it would later obtain, and the charges against the Congress activists — of plotting the violent overthrow of the state — were at this point clearly false. The state dropped most of the cases, and the remaining thirty defendants were acquitted in 1961.

The trial attracted large crowds and allowed the leadership of the movement to stay in contact for an extended period of time, something that repression and a lack of funds had previously made difficult. The police tried to avenge their failure to secure a conviction by raiding the home of Ruth First and Joe Slovo, trying to catch their black comrades celebrating with a glass in hand (it was then illegal to serve alcohol to black Africans).

But the screw was already tightening. In March 1960, police opened fire on an anti-pass demonstration in Sharpeville, killing sixty-nine people. After a moment of indecision, the state launched a further crackdown, suspending civil rights, rounding up of thousands of activists, and imposing a permanent ban on the ANC and PAC.

In the years that followed, the South African police formally received sweeping new powers of arrest and detention without trial. The ninety-day detention law, introduced in 1963, allowed the police to detain individuals in custody without trial for ninety days, then release and immediately re-arrest them.

The CIA gave police units training in torture techniques, and the use of solitary confinement became commonplace. Under these circumstances, many activists came to believe that the kind of non-violent mass politics attempted from the late 1940s onward, which had reached its apogee with the ratification of the Freedom Charter, was no longer viable.

The reasons for this are complex. While elders of the movement like ANC president Albert Luthuli were committed to Gandhian principles of non-violence, this had never been the position of Youth Leaguers like Sisulu or Mandela. They had been making discrete inquiries about the possibility of armed struggle from at least 1953.

While some writers have attributed this policy shift to a communist cabal or an overly romantic view of people’s war in countries like China and Algeria, this seems unlikely. ANC leaders appear to have been much more influenced by a fear that South Africa might go the same way as Kenya, where the anti-colonial Mau Mau insurgency had devolved into a bitter civil war, and by the mounting difficulty of resisting demands from the urban poor to “fight back” against the regime.

At the Rivonia Trial, Mandela spoke of the “inevitability” of African violence, and the need for “responsible leadership” to “canalize” this reaction in order to prevent outbreaks of “terrorism.”

Armed Struggle

In the face of such pressures, the ANC and the Communist Party both started to establish armed units. These units joined together to form Umkhonto we Sizwe (“the spear of the nation”), known as MK for short, with a High Command drawn from members of both organizations.

At first, MK launched a campaign of sabotage, keeping one foot in the mass politics of the 1950s. There were some successful operations, but overall, MK’s action caused little lasting damage or concern among South Africa’s rulers.

Instead of reconsidering its strategy, MK’s High Command began thinking about full-scale guerrilla war. With Mandela under arrest, and many other members in hiding, the High Command eventually authorized a military campaign called Operation Mayibuye (from the ANC slogan Mayibuye I Afrika, “come back Africa”).

The use of force against the evil of apartheid was surely justified on moral grounds. With hindsight, however, it seems to have been a strategic misreading of the situation. Although this is a conclusion that many people are reluctant to draw, because reactionaries branded the ANC as “terrorists,” it was in fact the view of numerous activists within the organization itself.

When a police sweep captured much of the leadership at Rivonia, Rusty Bernstein had been preparing to present his detailed objections to Operation Mayibuye, on the grounds that it “proceeded from a wholly inadequate analysis of the real balance of power in the country.” Many of the others captured, including Walter Sisulu, had similar misgivings.

Ahmed Kathrada, another of the Rivonia trialists convicted with Mandela, was more strenuously opposed to the military turn, and even to the campaign of sabotage as it had been undertaken, believing that “it would not be effective unless it was directly related to some mass campaign.”

Kathrada’s point implicitly draws attention to the gap in ANC thinking of the 1960s: between “disciplined” military strikes by small groups and non-violent mass campaigns there lay a third option, of a mass uprising that was neither militaristic nor based on Gandhian non-violence. The ANC did not give that option due attention.

The courts found those captured at Rivonia guilty, and they received life sentences. The only exceptions were Bob Hepple, who turned state’s evidence, then fled before testifying, Arthur Goldreich, who escaped before the trial with Harold Wolpe, and Rusty Bernstein, who was acquitted because of insufficient evidence, only to be immediately rearrested in court under the ninety-day law.

By sheer luck, the authorities granted Bernstein bail, allowing him to escape to Botswana (in true South African style, the Special Branch officer had been absent from the hearing because he was watching a rugby match).

A Popular Rebellion

In 1976, the Soweto uprising broke out. This rebellion, led by schoolchildren, had nothing to do with the ANC, which had mostly been absent from the country for over a decade. The ideology of the uprising — “Black Consciousness” — also had little in common with the non-racialism of the Freedom Charter, of which the young protesters were largely ignorant. As resistance grew, however, this changed.

By the 1980s, two organizations had emerged to spearhead a rebellious civil society: the revived trade union movement, eventually united under the umbrella of COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions), and a popular coalition of local groups known as the United Democratic Front (UDF). Both organizations had links to the ANC and its non-racialist ideology. The UDF formally adopted the Freedom Charter as its credo.

At the same time, the trade unions and the UDF were more democratic and less centralized than the ANC or SACP had ever been. It was they who rendered South Africa ungovernable in the late apartheid years, through their activism in the workplace and in the townships.

This rebellion posed a far more serious threat to apartheid than MK’s sporadic actions. It was this mass, popular Jacobinism, rather than MK’s rather insignificant military threat, that gave the ANC real leverage in the negotiations to end apartheid.

We should not romanticize these years. The uprising confirmed some of the forebodings enunciated by Nelson Mandela at Rivonia two decades earlier as thousands were killed. The apartheid state inflicted much of this violence, both directly and through its allies and proxies, most notably the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party. But the “comrades” also made their own contribution.

The violent expulsion and killing of black police officers and municipal officials, and the dishing out of severe, often fatal forms of “people’s justice” against collaborators, both real and imagined, became commonplace.

Right Turn

As apartheid entered its endgame and the regime unbanned the ANC, several processes were apparent. First of all, the early 1990s were clearly not a propitious time to implement the social provisions of the Freedom Charter. Apartheid in its classic, mid-century phase had been about a shortage of black labor.

By now, however, mass unemployment was a crushing reality in most of the country, weakening the working class as a force for social justice. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the ensuing free-market triumphalism of the Washington Consensus, also removed sources of support, whether material or ideological, for policies like mine nationalization or land reform.

Meanwhile, the internal politics of the ANC alliance pushed rightward. Just as the movement was on the brink of exercising power, an assassin gunned down SACP leader Chris Hani, a powerful voice from the left. His comrade Joe Slovo died of cancer not long afterward.

The anointing as Mandela’s successor of Thabo Mbeki, the son of an ANC veteran who had run Oliver Tambo’s office in London, symbolized a much wider displacement of those who had taken real risks during the rebellions of the 1980s, in favor of a “struggle bureaucracy” whose members now returned from exile.

As the ANC supplanted the UDF in the 1990s, sometimes appointing its more effective leaders to paid positions, it demobilized a federation of groups that could have effectively contested its drift to the right. In the absence of a radical economic program, the ANC drew on a kind of racialized neoliberalism, with a program of “Black Economic Empowerment” creating a class of black plutocrats while leaving the underlying disparities largely untouched.

COSATU fared somewhat better. It did have some positive influence on the government, in the earlier post-apartheid years at least — for example, by allying itself with the Treatment Action Campaign to make anti-retroviral HIV drugs available. But the unions have not done a good job of recruiting among the lowest-paid, informalized sections of the workforce, or of representing their interests.

This was graphically illustrated by the dispute at the platinum mines which triggered the Marikana massacre. The lowest-paid underground workers, rock drill operators, were in revolt against a pay scale negotiated by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) that left them behind. NUM officials were among those who had called for the military to be deployed against the strikers before the massacre.

Mythologizing the Struggle

South Africa’s post-apartheid rulers have implemented the provisions of the Freedom Charter that were consistent with liberalism, such as votes for all or equality before the law. However, the charter was notable precisely for its insistence that economic and political rights were equally important.

In a nod to this aspect, the new South African constitution did stipulate certain socio-economic rights — to health care services, sufficient food and water, and adequate social assistance. And the courts have sometimes forced the government to justify itself on such questions. In the absence of effective parliamentary scrutiny, this is important, but it has still done little to force the government’s hand.

There has been a real but comparatively small reduction in poverty since 1994, and there are now some important government programs. But income inequality has actually grown worse, with near-continuous economic growth since 1997 simply creating more wealth at the top. South Africa is generally considered to be the most unequal country in the world.

In today’s South Africa, people often mention the Freedom Charter, but its role in contemporary debate seems oddly divorced from its popular origins. The ANC now presents the charter, not as a demand for freedom dictated by the people themselves, but as a gift from the party. And this contributes to a wider liberation myth.

This myth erases the other forces that opposed apartheid: a memorial to Hector Pieterson, a martyr of Soweto’s school uprisings inspired by Black Consciousness, salutes him in the name of the ANC Youth League, and the UDF is either forgotten or evoked as a placeholder for the ANC in exile.

One consequence of this myth is to reinforce the notion of what we might term “struggle debt,” according to which the people owe the ANC a debt for their liberation. Rather like original sin, this is a debt that can never be redeemed, only forgiven through the grace of the party.

South Africa and the wider world urgently need to recover the true meaning of the Freedom Charter. It showed us that personal liberty cannot be separated from economic freedom, and that non-racialism must be connected to the radical redistribution of wealth. Needless to say, this stands in stark contrast to what has actually happened in the new South Africa, where the poor can vote while their children go hungry, and where “empowerment” means the creation of black billionaires to stand alongside the white ones.

Another key contribution of the charter was its use of freedom as an organizing concept for the Left. And here the method of the Freedom Charter, with the call for submissions through which it was assembled, is as important as what the text says. To actually ask ordinary people about “the things that will make us free,” to try and summarize their ideas while drawing upon their vocabularies, is a skill that the Left needs to rediscover.  “Let us speak together of freedom!”