Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter

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The crowd at the Congress of the People, Kliptown, 1955

Significance of the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter

The campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter was the climax to a decade or so of multifaceted and creative resistance to white minority rule and domination by a disenfranchised black majority. Coming shortly after the Defiance Campaign of 1952, it was a unique and imaginative response to an increasingly repressive and racist government that narrowed the scope for extra-parliamentary dissent and opposition. In the first instance, the campaign originated from the legal limits imposed by a repressive state. More fundamentally, the campaign responded to another need – that of developing the organisational and social bases of the Congress movement and clarifying its political policies and principles and social goals.

The campaign occurred in a phase of transition when the Congress movement experienced rapid growth and expansion in of both mass membership and organisation. In the three years following the Defiance Campaign, the formation of the South African Coloured People’s Organisation, the South African Congress of Democrats, the Federation of South African Women, the South African Congress of Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party. This remarkable organisational development and growth was loosely held together by a collection of individual leaders in the Congress movement and by a shared adherence to vaguely held policies and principles. The campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter altered this state of affairs permanently. It served to consolidate and unify loosely associated political organisations into a principled alliance based on a coherent political programme. It enabled the Congress leadership to construct a structured relationship between the different components of the liberation forces in South Africa on a common and shared vision of an alternative and radically different social order.

For the very first time the Congress movement assumed a fully non-racial character, making it broadly representative of the South African population.

Through the different components of the Congress Alliance, the Congress movement had come to represent the progressive and democratic interests of Africans, Indians, coloureds and whites as well as women, youth, workers, and to a lesser extent, peasants and agricultural workers. The campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter transformed what was essentially an urban-based movement into a fully-fledged national movement. Organisational advances were made in the rural areas as a result of volunteers collecting demands and making invaluable political contact with influential rural people such as chiefs, priests, teachers or Advisory Board councillors.

The campaign also revived congress branches in the urban areas that had been weakened in the aftermath of the Defiance Campaign. The campaign led to the establishment of numerous local Congress of the People committees which drew in a range of social, cultural, religious, sports, educational, traders and non-political youth groups into the work and activities of the Congress movement. In some areas it also provided the stimulus for the creation of new ANC branches.

The campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter introduced within the liberation movement a degree of ideological uniformity and cohesion that did not

exist previously. The campaign also succeeded in minimising ideological feuding and rivalry among black liberal-Christians, communists, conservatives and Africanists.

The new-found ideological cohesion that was established during the campaign marginalised the Africanists in the Congress Alliance and led to their defection shortly afterwards.

The Freedom Charter gave greater content and meaning to abstract goals such as “freedom”, “national liberation” and “self-determination of the African masses”. It gave concrete detail and substance to the Congress slogan, “Freedom in our lifetime”, by articulating what that freedom would mean in practical terms in various spheres of life in South Africa. The Charter provided a clear and concise set of policies, aims and objectives and principles of the Congress Alliance. It served as a vision of a post-apartheid South Africa, which was to be used as a mobilising and organising weapon in the struggle for democracy.

The most remarkable feature of this campaign was that it attempted to do what had never been done before in the history of South Africa – it allowed ordinary people, irrespective of race, language, sex, religion, class, educational standard, personal beliefs and values and organisational affiliation to speak about their hopes and dreams of the future.

The adoption of the Freedom Charter by the Congress of the People and subsequently by each component of the Congress Alliance signified a major break with the past traditions of the South African struggle. This was no longer a civil rights movement seeking to be accommodated in the existing socio-economic and political structures of society. It called for a fundamental restructuring of all aspects of South African society. The Congress of the People had placed the question of social transformation squarely on the agenda of the liberation movement in South Africa. Now there came into being a national liberation movement.

Last updated : 04-Aug-2016

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