Conclusion - The Congress of the People and Freedom Charter Campaign by Ismail Vadi, New Delhi, 1995

The South African state saw in the campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter an act of treason. Consequently, on the early morning of 5 December 1956, and some days later, one hundred and fifty-six leaders of the Congress Alliance were arrested. They were "accused of being part of a 'country-wide conspiracy' inspired by international communism to overthrow the state by violence." The campaign for the Congress of the People was to become the central focus of the prosecution's case, and the Freedom Charter a key document in the trial. "The 'essence of the crime of high treason', said Oswald Pirow (the Chief Prosecutor), was hostile intent." Such intent was evident in the Freedom Charter, as it would be necessary for the Congress Alliance to overthrow the South African state by violence in order to achieve me demands set out in the document. It is outside the scope of this study to provide an in-depth analysis of the legal proceedings of the Treason Trial or of its political meaning and implications. Suffice it to say that after a prolonged period all the accused were fully acquitted.

The campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter was a 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 formulating 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 teems of both mass membership and organisation. In the three years mat followed me Defiance Campaign, one witnessed 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 me Congress movement assumed a fully multi-racial (non-racial) character, making it broadly representative of me 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 it did of women, youth, workers and, to a lesser extent, the 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 representing the different racial sectors and the core social forces of the liberation alliance.

The campaign allowed for on-going political mobilisation and organisation in urban areas, and, for the first time, the systematic entry of the Congress movement in the reserves and rural areas where the vast majority of Africans had resided. Whilst historians such as Bundy are correct in arguing that the ANC in particular failed to develop a powerful organisational base in the rural areas, this does not necessarily imply that no attempts at all were made to penetrate the countryside. As is evident from this project, the Congress movement had succeeded in laying an organisational foundation and network in key rural areas in the Eastern and Western Cape, Natal and me Transvaal. This was primarily the result of me nature of the Congress of the People campaign which required that volunteers go out and make contact with the "masses" , understand their grievances, collect their demands, encourage them to become members or supporters of the Congress movement, attend as delegates the Congress of the People and outline their vision and hopes of a free and democratic South Africa. In this way important political contact was established between the Congress Alliance and influential individuals in the countryside such as chiefs. Advisory Board councillors, priests, teachers, representatives of farmers' associations, and relatives of volunteers and politicised migrants. Whilst it is not dear what role these played in the post-COP period, recent research by Beinart, for instance, does suggest that they were central to the mass upheavals in the countryside in the late 1950s.

Apart from this organisational advance in the rural areas, the campaign stimulated political activity in the urban centres, thereby reviving the congress branches that had been weakened in the aftermath of the Defiance Campaign. In areas where Congress organisation was intact, the campaign led to the establishment of numerous local COP committees which drew in a range of social, cultural, religious, sports, educational, traders and non-political youth groups into me work and activities of the Congress movement. In some areas, as in the Orange Free State, the campaign provided the impetus for the establishment of several new ANC branches. In short, then, the campaign had a revitalising effect on all Congress branches throughout the country and provided the motivation for members and activists to rebuild structures, recruit members and volunteers and deepen organisation in me townships and locations. In a number of areas attempts were made through the COP campaign to implement the M-Plan in elementary form by appointing or electing 'block', 'zone' or street coordinators for the campaign.

The campaign itself was conducive and suitable for such organisation precisely because of its long-time duration, the education and training of freedom volunteers in the skills of mass political work and Congress policies, the discipline required of volunteers, the active interaction of the leadership with rank and file members in the course of regular campaigning and the intimate and regular contact that it allowed for with local residents.

The campaign provided the vehicle for the launching of a newly created trade union movement, SACTU, which conceptualised and propagated political unionism as a strategic necessity for trade unions in the South African context. Such an orientation allowed for an organic unity of me trade union movement and political organs such as the Congresses and the South African Communist Party operating clandestinely. The strong political role of trade unions in South Africa, then and presently, has its roots in the campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter. The degree of active worker participation and involvement in the campaign varied from one province to another, but there can be no doubt that in Natal and the Eastern Cape it was significant and crucial to the success of the campaign.

The campaign afforded the FSAW and women broadly an opportunity to place on me agenda of me liberation movement the role and rights of women in our society which discriminates them on the basis of race, class and gender. This was a highly significant development, even though they de-emphasised explicitly feminist issues. This was probably the first occasion that women's issues were placed high on the agenda of the Congress movement as a whole, giving the FSA the legitimacy and confidence to launch the successful women's anti-pass protests in 1955 and 1956.

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 never existed before. This was the case despite the vociferous criticisms of Africanists. What the campaign succeeded in doing was the minimising of ideological feuding and rivalry among black liberal-Christians, communists, conservatives and Africanists. A new-found ideological cohesion was hammered out in the course of the campaign, leaving the Africanists as a marginalised political faction within the Congress Alliance, resulting in their defection shortly afterwards. Moreover, the Freedom Charter gave definitive content and meaning to abstract goals such a "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 dear and concise set of policies aims and objects 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 was never done in the history of South Africa, that is, to allow ordinary people, irrespective of their race, language, sex, religion, class, educational standard, personal beliefs and values and organisational affiliation to speak about their hopes and dreams of the future. In the very nature of a campaign of such magnitude, operating outside of the legal' legislative framework, it was inevitable that many people were never canvassed and many were never to be a part of this process. It was also inevitable that some would voluntarily remain outside of the process. But what is dear is that not a single individual was denied an opportunity to express his/her views on the topic of a post-apartheid future. It is this basic democratic principle that gave the Freedom Charter the legitimacy that it enjoys presently.

Some analysts have questioned the democratic origins of the Freedom Charter, arguing that the composition of the Drafting Committee was limited and remains a secret. It is proper to question who constituted the Drafting Committee and why its size, considering the importance of the task at hand, was so small. But to conclude on the basis of the above argument that the Freedom Charter had an undemocratic origin is to miss the point of the entire exercise. The democratic basis of the Charter lay in the initial consultations among the sponsoring organs and the later inclusion of the FSAW, SACTU and the SAPC as co-sponsors of the campaign, the establishment of functional provincial and numerous local COP committees, the extensive and widespread collection of demands, the open election of delegates in public meetings, large and small, the public adoption of each clause of the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People and it final ratification and adoption at the Annual Conferences of all the sponsoring organisations.

The degree and depth of democratic practices certainly varied from area to area and from province to province, and assumed different forms in different parts of the country, but the overall intention of the organisers of the campaign was to make the process as free and open to the people as was possible.

The campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter was not a campaign that reacted to a specific issue or problem that confronted a particular group or community. It was a major strategic initiative emerging from the conceptualisation of the South African state as a "fascist" state, and the need to construct a united front of as broad a range of anti-apartheid forces as possible so as to isolate me reactionary forces that served as the sodal bases of me National Party. It is this conceptualisation that explains me desire of the Congresses to include in the campaign organisations such as the Liberal Party, the National Union of South African Students, the South Institute of Race Relations, a wide range of non-political organisations and groups in the black communities and all social forces that had an objective interest in the abolition of the apartheid state.

The campaign acted as the catalyst for such a process; the Freedom Charter the ideological 'cement' to weld together such a diverse range of groups and organisations. The campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter was the first historic attempt to construct a nationally based, multi-racial (non-racial), democratic counter-hegemonic bloc to the "fascist" state in South Africa. The end result was something less than was anticipated””the Congress Alliance composed of the principal political organs of the African, Indian, coloured and democratic minded white people, together with the emergent, non-racial trade union and women's movements and the South African Communist Party.

The adoption of the Freedom Charter by me Congress of me 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, but one, which called for a fundamental restructuring of all aspects of the South African social formation. The Congress of the People had, once and for all. placed the question of sodal transformation on the agenda of the liberation movement in South Africa. In this regard it is worth recalling Suttner and Cronin's description of these developments:

In one sense the adoption of the Charter represented a continuation of earlier resistance, but in another, it marked the start of a new phase in the South African struggle. For the first time in the history of South African resistance, the people were actively involved in formulating their own vision of an alternative society. The majority of people would no longer seek to modify the existing order, to be assimilated into a society whose basis they fundamentally rejected. While the process by which the masses had come to this decision had been developing over decades, the Congress of the People represented the crucial historical moment: a completely new order, based on me will of the people, was put on the agenda.

It is this historical reality that explains the immense support for the Freedom Charter among democratic forces in contemporary South Africa. Powerful political forces, such as the now-disbanded United Democratic front, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the South African Youth Congress, the revived Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses and a host of women's, teachers', health and civic organisations, have adopted the Freedom Charter as their political programme. The democratic character of the campaign for the Congress of the People has given the Freedom Charter a legitimacy and relevance today that very few other political programmes can match. It is for this reason as well that the African National Congress, in introducing its Constitutional Guidelines for a post-apartheid South Africa, has declared:

The Freedom Charter, adopted in 1955 by the Congress of the People at Kliptown near Johannesburg, was the first systematic statement in the history of our country of the political and constitutional vision of a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa. The Freedom Charter remains today unique as the only South African document of its kind that adheres to democratic principles as accepted throughout the world. Among South Africans it has become by far the most widely accepted programme for a post-apartheid country. The stage is now approaching where the Freedom Charter must be converted from a vision for the future into a constitutional reality.

The ideals embodied in the Freedom Charter are fast becoming a concrete social reality in what is glibly and commonly referred to as me 'new South Africa'. In part, some of its key political provisions are encapsulated in the Interim Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1993). More important is the fact that me Freedom Charter's socio-economic content has a strong resonance in the ANC's Reconstruction and Development Programme which has been endorsed by all political parties in the Government of National Unity and a wide array of organisations in civil society. Few political analysts today will deny that the Freedom Charter stands as a foundational document of our democratic South Africa.

As South Africa's Constitutional Assembly is engaged in drafting a final constitution that is to be adopted in May 1996, it is following the footprints left in 1955 by the Congress Alliance through me campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter. An extensive-programme of "public participation events" in urban and rural areas””ranging from mass rallies, information workshops, consultations and discussions with organs of civil society, oral and written submissions by individuals and organisations and household meetings””has been organised to ensure that the people of South Africa have a say in designing a final constitution. This notion of popular democracy is the lesson that liberation history has bestowed upon South Africa.

The Congress of the People and Freedom Charter Campaign

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