Freedom Charter discourse promotes provocative debate by Kirosha Naicker (UNISA), 29 April 2013

Freedom Charter discourse promotes provocative debate

The Freedom Charter is the statement of core principles of the South African Congress Alliance, which consisted of the ANC and its allies – the South African Indian Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress.

By offering a platform for critical discourse on the very document notable for its demand and commitment to a non-racial South Africa, Unisa seeks to challenge prevailing presumptions and encourage ongoing conversations within the sociopolitical space. The first public dialogue planned as part of the project Credo: A musical testament to the Freedom Charter, and dealing with the history and legacy of the charter, took place on 26 April 2013, titled, The Freedom Charter as a living document.

The dialogue featured a panel of leading speakers: Prof Raymond Suttner, part-time Professor: Rhodes University and Emeritus Professor: Unisa; Dr Essop Pahad, former Minister in the Presidency and Editor-in-Chief of The Thinker magazine; Brigitte Mabandla, former Minister of Justice; and Jabulani Sithole, Lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Adopted in Kliptown on 26 June 1955, the Freedom Charter was the culmination of a long nation-wide, non-racial political consultative process among the diverse constituent members of the South African Congress Alliance, which included the African National Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats, the South African Indian Congress and the Coloured Peoples’ Congress. It is characterised by its opening demand, The people shall govern.

According to Suttner, “We do not treat its significance as obvious. For there to be democratic debate, we cannot treat most things as obviously desirable and necessary. Indeed issues which we debate around the Freedom Charter are not the same today as in 1955 or in the 1980s. Nor can anyone give an authoritative or final interpretation of the Freedom Charter.” He believes the words of the charter have to be contextualised in the context of its emancipatory, liberatory, broad vision.

The dialogue accompanies a multimedia musical production, Credo: A musical testament to the Freedom Charter, based on a text from the Freedom Charter. The oratorio, commissioned by Unisa, was composed by Bongani Ndodana and is a musical expression that echoes the social vision enshrined in the Freedom Charter. Through the project, Unisa is also prompting society to engage in a conversation about the values embodied in this historic declaration

An untidy document

Suttner regards the Freedom Charter as an untidy document, unlike the South African Constitution. On one hand it reflected, very specifically, on qualities of apartheid depression, which people wanted removed. On the other hand, it is a broad human rights document; in many ways, an advanced international human rights document of the time. What he also deems important is that the Freedom Charter, in contrast to the Defiance Campaign, was a movement away from rejection towards an outline of an alternative vision which the people of South Africa wanted.

Suttner believes that “Achieving representative democracy through the first election was a great victory but the people were and are, no longer directly present, but represented by what some have considered or called, ‘the people’s government’. It may be what has been called the movement from popular nationalism to state nationalism.”

Suttner’s objective throughout the dialogue was to throw up the meaning of the injunction, The people shall govern. “I’m not suggesting that the constitutional gains made since 1994 must be repudiated in favour of direct democracy. What I’m saying, while popular power may be outside of constitutional provisions and institutions, it is not antagonistic to these; in fact, in is an enrichment of the lie of the democracy that we have, and it is in no way compatible to have popular empowerment as well,” he says.

Making reference to the Freedom Charter where it states South Africa shall strive to maintain world peace and settlement of all international disputes by negotiation, not war, Pahad said, “This is an exceptionally profound statement to make in 1955 and this statement remains true today. What we want to do is to resolve international disputes by negotiations and not war. You must remember that this statement was made at a time when the cold war was at its height.”

Most powerful solidarity anti-apartheid movement

Pahad agreed with Suttner that central to the Freedom Charter is the notion of the people. “And when we today say that the people must be their own liberators, that’s what we mean,” he explained. In his view, “What we did was we built an international anti-apartheid movement that remains the most powerful solidarity movement ever seen in the history of the world. You won’t find another more powerful international solidarity movement than the anti-apartheid movement that we helped to build.”

Reverend Welcome Methula (Department of Christian Spirituality, Church History and Missiology, Unisa) doesn’t believe in the Freedom Charter, saying “It only reduces the struggle of South African politics to the glory of the ANC, to the undermining of the religious formation, political and cultural institutions, which played a critical role in the struggle against apartheid and colonialism.”

Reduces the struggle of SA politics to the glory of the ANC

However criticism of the Freedom Charter remains. Reverend Welcome Methula, of the Department of Christian Spirituality, Church History and Missiology, Unisa, believes that the charter has distorted the history of South Africa. “It has premised on three significant histories, 1952, 1912 and 1994, and therefore it does not say anything about the achievements that were made during that historical period. It only reduces the struggle of South African politics to the glory of the ANC, to the undermining of the religious formation, political and cultural institutions that played a critical role in the struggle against apartheid and colonialism.”

Methula is deeply disappointed that, “To this very day, the Freedom Charter is still doing a lot of injustice to many black poor people. It is still legalising our landlessness. To this very day, the ANC has not built a university post 1994, it has not opened a bank. All that’s been done is that we should be co-opted to those who are from Europe. So I have a problem with the Freedom Charter because it is a gross misrepresentation of the African struggles for liberation,” he exclaimed.

Development of African middle class an important shift

Pahad hit back at Methula, saying, “Don’t ask us to do your work for you. It’s not my job to talk about other political movements. Whether or not the present policies of the government are just in support of the middle classes, that’s for you to decide. If your approach is going to be so narrowly defined by a class approach, you won’t understand.” Adding to his argument, Pahad said, “The growth and development of the African middle class in South Africa has been a very important change and shift in the socioeconomic climate of our country. And you need to understand that that was a demonstrable shift from the policies of apartheid. Obviously we, at that time, and the present administration, still have a long way to go to meet some of the most pressing needs and challenges of our people. And that’s what we have to do. But to do that, I think, we in the end require the active involvement of the masses of our people. If our policies and the implementation of our policies exclude or marginalise the masses of our people, then we’re not going to succeed in what we want to do.”

A panel of leading speakers at the first public dialogue planned as part of the project Credo: A musical testament to the Freedom Charter, and dealing with the history and legacy of the Freedom Charter, featured, standing, Jabulani Sithole (Lecturer: University of KwaZulu Natal), Dr Essop Pahad (former Minister in the Presidency and Editor-in-Chief: The Thinker magazine); and Prof Mandla Makhanya (Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Unisa); and seated, Prof Raymond Suttner (part-time Professor: Rhodes University and Emeritus Professor: Unisa) and Brigitte Mabandla (former Minister of Justice)

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