Lessons of the 1950s

5. The Freedom Charter

The Freedom Charter, a programme which still embraces many of the essential aims of our struggle, was adopted at the Congress of the People, held on 26-27 June 1955.

Attended by some 3,000 delegates, the Congress of the People was one of the most representative gatherings ever held in South Africa. Like the launching conference of the UDF in August last year, it aroused enormous enthusiasm in the working class.

In the run-up to the Congress, meetings were organised in different parts of the country, giving an opportunity to working people to voice and write down their demands. The Freedom Charter, reported O. R. Tambo, was "being compiled from thousands of written statements…gathered at thousands of small meetings."[21]

"For months now," wrote New Age (June 23, 1955), "the demands have been flooding into COP headquarters, on sheets torn from school exercise books, on little dog-eared scraps of paper, on slips torn from COP leaflets."

Apparently stemming from a proposal first made publicly by Z. K. Matthews, the calling of the Congress was seen as a means of raising the pressure on the white government by showing the groundswell of unity backing up the ANC's democratic demands.

It could not, of course, be the "people's parliament" which some called it - for it gathered under the threatening guns of the oppressor state and was powerless to implement its will. But this very fact highlighted for the people, who sent delegates to it and supported it, that the democratic will of the majority would always be frustrated until that state power was overthrown.

The Congress of the People thus could have provided a springboard for the launching of a new and more effective round of nationwide action - extending and consolidating working-class political organisation for yet bigger battles to come - if the leadership had been united with a clear conception of where to lead it.

As with all the campaigns of the 1950s, the campaign of preparation for the Congress was most effective where the working class was best organised. They saw the possibilities which it opened up, and they took it up vigorously.

Thus in Port Elizabeth (as a SACTU activist, Alven Bennie, later recalled):

"The workers responded with enthusiasm and we were working day and night preparing for the Congress of the People…That campaign helped us a lot…The workers would bring their demands to the offices after work. We worked till late and they would come in with their papers from different industries. We set up small committees, not only for the Congress, but we would organize a committee of workers so that they could continue with the work of organizing for the trade unions - in the dairies, laundries, road construction, with building workers, railway workers, etc.

"The real organizing of the workers was boosted by the campaign…they had something to keep them together to discuss common problems. Some of their problems were those of higher wages, better working conditions…We explained that workers must unite, have a union to represent them. So, this gave us a chance to organize workers and explain to them that some of these problems would not be solved by the Congress of the People…"[22]

In other areas, where the middle-class predominance in the ANC was absolute, there was little or no response to the campaign. "Although the ANC was responsible for the creation of the Congress of the People," reported the NEC in December 1955, "many of its leaders and many of its branches showed a complete lack of activity as if some of them regretted the birth of this great and noble idea."

Why should the idea of the Congress of the People have been "regretted"? Many of the middle class in the ANC sensed that the Congress would provide a forum where working-class people could raise a political voice in a concerted way, and exert public pressure from the left upon the policy of the movement. They feared losing control of the direction of the ANC.

Revolutionary character

"Grounds" for their anxiety were evident in the revolutionary character of the demands which poured in from the working class, who wanted not only an end to racial oppression but an end to their enslavement by capitalism.

A Communist Party member has disclosed how the committee on which he served, which received and sorted these demands to prepare a framework for the Freedom Charter, censored out the many demands for "socialism" which flowed in.

Nevertheless, the concrete social needs of workers for a national minimum wage, unemployment benefits, decent housing, education, hospitals, transport, etc, did find their way into the Charter and form a very important part of it. Included with them was the nationalisation clause, which was seen by workers at the Congress of the People as a cornerstone of the whole Charter:

"The National wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people; The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole…"

Here was embodied the recognition of the working class that the achievement of national liberation and democracy involved overthrowing the capitalist class and breaking the grip of the profit system. At the Congress, the mover of the nationalisation clause explained it to the delegates in these words:

"It says ownership of the mines will be transferred to the ownership of the people. It says wherever there is a gold mine there will no longer be a compound boss. There will be a committee of the workers to run the gold mines. Friends, we also say that wherever there is a factory and where there are workers who are exploited, we say that the workers will take over and run the factories. In other words, the ownership of the factories will come into the hands of the people…Let the banks come back to the people, let us have a people's committee to run the banks."

The next speaker, a trade union leader from Natal, spelled out the significance which the working class attached to this clause of the Charter:

"Now comrades, the biggest difficulty we are facing in South Africa is that one of capitalism in all its oppressive measures versus the ordinary people - the ordinary workers in the country. We find in this country, as the mover of the resolution pointed out, the means of production. The factories, the lands, the industries and everything possible is owned by a small group of people who are the capitalists in this country. They skin the people, they live on the fat of the workers and make them work, as a matter of fact in exploitation. They oppress in order to keep them as slaves in the land of their birth.

"Now friends, this is a very important demand in the Freedom Charter. Now we would like to see a South Africa where the industries, the lands, the big businesses and the mines, and everything that is owned by a small group of people in this country, must be owned by all the people in this country. That is what we demand, this is what we fight for and until we have achieved that we must not rest."[23]

Nothing was said publicly at the Congress, by any ANC or CP leader, to contradict this view. Nevertheless, the real attitude of the leadership was different, as soon became apparent.

One of those who had brought the nationalisation clause as a resolution from the Cape has recalled a bitter struggle, not only by some ANC leaders, but also by leading "Communists", to prevent its inclusion in the Charter.

Then, once the delegates to the Congress of the People had returned home, the leadership began to reinterpret the Charter publicly and deny its anti-capitalist character.


At the Natal ANC conference in October 1955, a resolution criticised the nationalisation clause on the grounds that it "creates the impression that something will be taken away from someone (maybe the 'Haves') and given to some other person (maybe the 'Have-nots'). We would prefer something like this: 'shall be shared equitably among all the people.'"

(It has yet to be explained how wealth can be "shared equitably" while the productive forces are privately owned and the economy is based on profit and exploitation.)

This conference also disliked the demand for a 40-hour working week (it was unnecessary "padding"!) and stated that "making unused housing space" available should not require more than one family to live under one roof. (Even in the enormous mansions of the rich?!)

Reflecting similar views, Lutuli insisted (in a statement prepared for the Treason Trial) that the ANC did not favour abolition of private ownership of the means of production.[24]

Nelson Mandela, too, took this line publicly in 1956.[25] He was still repeating it at the Rivonia trial in the 1960s:

"The realisation of the Freedom Charter would open up fresh fields for a prosperous African population of all classes, including the middle class. The ANC has never at any period in its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society."[26]

In no way did the Communist Party leadership ever express disagreement with these positions.

For example, in a document prepared for the defence in the Treason Trial, a leading CP member, Jack Simons, supported the Lutuli/Mandela interpretation of the Charter. He stated that it did not call for public ownership of the means of production, and that it contained no suggestion of a transition to a classless and socialist society. Adhering to the "two-stage" conception of Stalinism, he asserted that, in the conditions of South African autocracy, Marxists could be expected to work for a bourgeois democracy.[27]


The Congress and Communist Party leaders argued that this "interpretation" of the Freedom Charter was necessary in order to avoid frightening the black middle class away from the Congress movement. But the Freedom Charter called for the nationalisation, not of the little township shop, not of small private property, but of the commanding heights of the economy.

With workers' democratic control and management of production as a whole, based on the main concentrations of industry, mining, agriculture and finance, small private businesses would in fact be necessary to facilitate distribution and small-scale services through a lengthy transitional period. In contrast, a "bourgeois democracy", leaving the economy to be organised on criteria of profit, would leave the middle class at the mercy of capitalist monopolies.

In reality the Congress/CP leadership backed off from the nationalisation clause of the Freedom Charter because they were still pursuing a futile search for reconciliation between the demands of the masses and the interests of the liberal capitalists.

For the same reason, they could not move to build systematically upon the enthusiastic working-class support which the Congress of the People and the adoption of the Freedom Charter had aroused. The lack of a revolutionary class conception of the struggle thus blunted the thrust of the movement at every point when clear leadership was needed to march forward.

Instead of a renewed campaign of action the ANC launched a campaign…to get a million signatures in support of the Charter. What effect this was supposed to have in changing the real relationships of power in South Africa was a mystery (and for that reason petitions usually leave workers stone cold). This petitioning campaign managed to get an estimated 100,000 signatures, mostly in the Transvaal, and then fizzled out.

From this time, ANC and CP leaders placed increased emphasis on trying to organise an "anti-Nationalist front" - a front based not on mass unity in action, but on assembling the widest possible range of support, mainly verbal, of anyone to the left of the government. Thus Walter Sisulu, writing in Africa South (January-March 1957), stated that:

"Even the United Party will have to make up its mind. It will be faced with the question of joining with the Nationalists completely and sharing the fate which will face all racialists, or joining with the larger family of the democratic forces against apartheid."

Just how the black workers could be part of the same "family" with their capitalist masters - or in any way rely on them for real support - was not explained.[28]

Nevertheless, from 1955, the lull in the mass movement was beginning to end. The struggle launched by African women in 1956 against the government's attempt to impose passes on them, and the bus boycott in Evaton, were signs of a resurgence. By early 1957 the mass movement had reached its highest point in the decade, with the Alexandra bus boycott and the nationwide echo it evoked among working people.

In 1955 SACTU was formed, a non-racial trade union movement whose founding principles provided the basis on which mass fighting trade unionism could have been built.

Yet Congress leaders were as much, and indeed more, preoccupied with the twists and turns of the remainder of the tiny black middle class, and the liberals who associated with them.

Inordinate attention was paid, for example, to an interdenominational conference of African churchmen held at Bloemfontein in October 1956 to consider the NP government's Tomlinson Commission proposals on the Bantustans. The clergy's opposition to these proposals, and their decision to call for a "multi-racial conference" of "national leaders" was, it was claimed, an "important step" in the "broadening" of the "anti-Nationalist front".

Yet, surely, what really mattered was not the support of this handful of individuals, powerless on their own account, but the organisation of the as-yet unorganised mass of the working class, thirsting for a clear lead.

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[21] Quoted in From Protest to Challenge, vol. 3, p. 59.

[22] Luckhardt and Wall, Organize or Starve!, The History of the South African Congress of Trade Unions, London, 1980, p. 337.

[23] See From Protest to Challenge, vol. 3, p.195-6.

[24] See sources quoted in Gerhart, Black Power in South Africa, California, 1978, p. 95, and From Protest to Challenge, vol. 3, p. 195-6.

[25] See Liberation, June 1956.

[26] From his statement to the court, dated April 20, 1964. It should be noted that Mandela used the trial to make as clear as possible a public statement of his political beliefs, and made no attempt to conceal his views in the hope of leniency. Courageously facing his accusers, he proclaimed his ideal of a "democratic and free society" as one "which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

[27] See From Protest to Challenge, vol. 3, p. 63.

[28] Giving a list of "anti-Nationalist forces" which included some of the UP leaders, the Black Sash, the Liberal Party, TUCSA, and the editor of the Rand Daily Mail, the ANC National Executive in its 1958 report admitted: "Unfortunately the Liberation movement has not found an appropriate method to bring about the necessary cooperation of all these forces."

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