Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter

Huddleston recieves his Isitwalandwe medal at the Congress of the People Volunteers for the Freedom Charter Campaign

The Congress of the People, Kliptown 1955

The adoption of the Freedom Charter by the Congress of the People was widely recognised both in South Africa and internationally as an event of major political significance. In his message to the Congress of the People, Chief Albert Luthuli, the banned National President of the ANC said:

"‘Why will this assembly be significant and unique? Its size, I hope, will make it unique. But above all its multi-racial nature and its noble objectives will make it unique because it will be the first time in the history of our multi-racial nation that its people from all walks of life will meet as equals, irrespective of race, colour and creed, to formulate a Freedom Charter for all people in the country."

In the wake of the Defiance Campaign, ANC leaders were confronted with the problem of how to sustain the enthusiasm of their vast new following. The National Action Council (successor to the ANC/SAIC Joint Planning Council) reported a ‘disquieting lull which had descended over the conditions under which people live’. An ANC ‘Programme of Economic Advancement’ announced in mid-1953 displayed a new sensitivity to the preoccupations of the poor and insecure. It called for the end to the labour colour bar, the right to organise, the extension of social security, free trading rights and a minimum wage of one pound a day.

At the Cape provincial congress of the ANC in August 1953 Prof. ZK Matthews proposed the summoning of a ‘national convention at which all groups might be represented to consider our national problems on an all-inclusive basis’ to ‘draw up a Freedom Charter for the democratic South Africa of the future’. The idea was endorsed by the ANC’s annual conference in September.

On 23 March 1954 the executives of the ANC, South African Indian Congress, South African Congress of Democrats and the newly formed South African Coloured People’s Congress, met in Tongaat near Durban to discuss plans for a national convention.

At this meeting it was decided to establish a National Action Council for the Congress of the People. It would consist of eight delegates from each of the organisations sponsoring the Congress. It was envisaged that there would be three phases to the creation of the Freedom Charter. First, provincial committees would be established along the same lines as the National Action Council.

At the same time the recruitment of a huge army of ‘Freedom Volunteers’ was to begin the task of publicising the Congress and collecting demands for the Freedom Charter. The provincial committees would then work to establish committees in every workplace, village and township. The final stage would involve the election of delegates from each locality who would then meet and assist in the drafting of the Charter.

While the process of electing delegates at public meetings took place in different centres, sub-committees of the National Action Council began sorting into various categories the multitude of demands and suggestions that had flowed in. Eventually, a small drafting committee produced the Charter, drawing on material prepared by the sub-committees. The document that emerged had a rather distinctive poetic style, possibly the influence of Lionel Bernstein, one of the drafters. It was presented to the ANC’s national executive on the eve of the Congress of the People. Neither Chief Luthuli (who was banned) nor Prof. Matthews, the originators of the idea, saw it then.

They took over the speakers’ platform, confiscated all the documents they could find, announced that they had reason to believe that treason was being contemplated, and took the names and addresses of all the delegates before sending them home.

Clearly the apartheid government was now confident that with the holding of the Congress the ANC and its allies had been given enough rope to hang themselves – hence the degree of toleration with which it had been treated up to that point.

Further Reading

Link to ANC website piece on The Congress of the People

Last updated : 04-Aug-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011