The African National Congress (ANC), it being the only remaining Congress Alliance member, today celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter. It was 60 years ago today that thousands of people from different walks of life gathered together and gave historical reality to an future South Africa drafted by those in the Alliance.
It was this Charter that outlined the prescripts of freedom in a future democratic South Africa; a democracy attained 39 years later. Interestingly, the Charter also constructs a ‘common’ citizenry, which has different historical trajectories, into a shared democratic South Africa.
On the one hand, the Charter declares: “that we, the people of South Africa, Black and white together as equals, countrymen and brothers…” then on the other hand, it proceeds to say a “people who have been robbed of their birth right to land, liberty and peace”.
Certainly, the former, them being white, and the latter are historical enemies but in the post-1994 moment, drawing from Mahmood Mamdani, though the former are also beneficiaries of apartheid and the latter are its victims, both are ‘survivors’ of the past.
Such characterizations were and are not without contestation, however. The fierce ideological contestations surrounding the Charter are deep and touch at the very heart of struggles over South Africa’s future; the African nationalist currents in the then Congress Alliance, the nationalist group, which won the day, and the socialist undercurrents which seem to silently boast of their success, all played a historic role in the anti-apartheid struggle.
These currents, however, have begun to play themselves out yet again in the ‘post-apartheid’ moment. And so the idea that we are all ‘survivors’ of apartheid is questioned from many quarters; especially from those outside the liberal establishment.
Given the reality that the nationalists within the Congress Alliance won the day, albeit with ‘strategic’ compromises with the conservative National Party (NP) (both resting on institutions of liberalism) it is important to see what the ANC, in particular, had in mind concerning the Freedom Charter.
In a 1985 speech on Freedom Station, Oliver Tambo had the following to say about the Freedom Charter: “To bring about the kind of society that is visualised in the Freedom Charter, we have to break down and destroy the old order. We have to make apartheid unworkable and our country ungovernable”.
Certainly, the contemporary moment does not call for rendering the country ungovernable, but it does call for making apartheid unworkable in all its manifestations.
Thus while juridical and political apartheid was defeated, the economic and sociological aspects of apartheid have yet to be rendered unworkable.
South Africa can therefore not afford to reverse compromises
But how do we reflect on the Charter? How do we, as ‘survivors’ of the past, or perhaps as ‘victims’ of the past, measure the success or failure of the Charter? Or is there no need for a ‘victims’ reflection, better yet, will a collective, ‘survivors’, reflection bring us to a common appreciation of ‘what needs to be done’?
Given the growing racial and class tensions, and many of the agitations surrounding it, one is tempted to think that a ‘survivors’ reflection of the Charter is untenable because it will be contradictory.
However, let us briefly pull back on that temptation and take a longer view of the Charter and its attempt to construct a common identity of ‘survivors’ justice.
In an interview conducted with Zouh Enlai in the 1950’s, and not with Mao Tse Tung, by an American journalist concerning the French riots of 1968, and not the French revolution of 1789, Enlai is reported to have actually said that it ‘was too early to assess the implications of the French riots of 1968’.
Importantly, and in light of this, the US former diplomat, Charles Freeman Jr., cautions against ‘the perils of judgements made in real time’. Given the class and racial tensions in the country now, reflections on the Charter can potentially be narrow in perspective.
Democratic South Africa is 21 years old. And the earlier years of negotiations were fraught with a number of austere but necessary compromises; this roundly being the triumph of peace over justice. But today the country enjoys a different moment and has, at its disposal, wider options to pursue.
Therefore given these wider options, today we celebrate the Freedom Charter because it reminds us of the forms and type of freedoms generations before us imagined.
South Africa can therefore not afford to reverse compromises, but can use the Charter as a peak into the future of the kind of society we have built.
Thapelo Tselapedi is a Politics lecturer at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), an independent consultant and a PhD candidate at the same institution. You can follow him on twitter @t_tselapedi