An important autobiographical note
Let me break with academic tradition and give a brief autobiographical background. Being asked to deliver this lecture has evoked two sets of emotions inside me. Firstly, I was not sure whether to accept an invitation to deliver the Harold Wolpe lecture. As someone who follows with keen interest most of the activities hosted by the CCS I have noted the calibre of people who deliver these lectures, and I was not sure whether I fit the quality required of such guests. Related to that is the fact that Harold Wolpe was indeed a highly respected intellectual and being invited to give a lecture named after him is rather daunting for me.
The second emotion invoked by the invitation is that, for me, talking about the Freedom Charter does not only raise certain fundamental questions – it also raises memories of a painful history.
Growing up in the early 1980s I was one of those young people who fought battles around the Freedom Charter. I belong to a generation whose interaction with the Freedom Charter meant possible death. Yes, I belong to a generation of young people whose hero, Sipho Mngomezulu, was killed, burnt, and on the morning of his funeral had his coffin burnt. Why? Because he dared question the Congress movement, the custodian of the Freedom Charter.
I come from a generation that can tell how Mandla Seleoane, Salim Vally, Makoma Lekalakala, Jennifer Kalaote, and many others got involved in bitter struggles within the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa and other unions over whether it was wise for the union movement to adopt the Charter or any of the documents within the liberation movement, notably the Azanian Manifesto. It is now history that battles to prevent the division of the working class movement along ideological lines were lost.
It is partly for the above reasons (and experiences) that some of us have not talked openly and loudly about the perceived rising intolerance and repression of dissent. Just like the political turn that we have seen and continue to observe, the rising ‘repression’ is not new to some of us. The neoliberal turn that has been imposed on the country by the Congress movement serves only to prove the thesis that we held onto in the 1980s when talks about possible negotiations were mooted. We warned then that the consequence of that route was going to be an elite pact of/between Afrikaner and African bourgeois nationalisms. Unfortunately, in politics there is no room for the “we said it” or “we told you so” self-glorification.
Given the climate under which the Charter was imposed, and some of the methods used, are we now surprised that the tendencies of the 1980s, the intolerance visited upon some sections of the liberation movement, such as the Black Consciousness Movement, are now being visited upon the social movements, except that now the might of the state is being used?
This is my background. I thought that I should be open and honest about this so that we can also start appreciating the Freedom Charter not only as a historical document (a text) but also as a highly contested political intervention; how it affected many people; and how it was contested - contests that at times could mean death. In addition to being a text, and an intervention, the Charter was very much a biographed process.
It is my contention that like most discussions, it is impossible to apply the so-called distantiation approach when analysing the South African political scene, and history. For those interested in some of the above events (background) I refer you to Rian Malan’s book My Traitor’s Heart.
In addition to this being a Harold Wolpe lecture I also want to dedicate my talk tonight to those who died during the internecine violence of the 1980s, some because of arguments and disagreements around/over the Charter.
I would like to thank the CCS for inviting me to deliver this lecture tonight. It is my hope that I will do some justice to the legacy of Harold Wolpe and to the stature of the series itself.
The title of my paper tonight suggests that I will first try to take the audience through the origins of the Freedom Charter. In so doing an attempt will be made to offer a critical examination of the evolution of the Charter in a given historical epoch. I will then trace the treatment of the Charter in the hands of different political players and how such treatment turned into a process on its own and greatly shaped the political landscape of the country, and the shape and texture of the liberation struggle, and the liberation movement, throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and all the way through to the beginning of the 1990s.
Today, as we gather in this hall, there is talk about the Freedom Charter both within ruling alliance structures (and therefore government itself) and structures and movements outside the Alliance. It is also important to note that not all political formations to the left of the ruling alliance are concerned with this debate.
For those engaged in it, the discussion on the Charter is motivated by two reasons. In the first place, as part of the 50th anniversary of the Charter, the Alliance is seeking to demonstrate that government programmes are informed and inspired by the spirit of the Charter.
On the other hand, there is a growing call from particularly the social movements that a return to the basic tenets of the Charter will usher in a different discourse, a discourse that will challenge and hopefully even unseat the current sweep, and grip, of/by neoliberalism on the political and economic systems of the country.
While both the Alliance and social movements are increasingly growing far apart from one another the above suggest that there is an agreement that South Africa is under the firm grip of neoliberalism and that there must therefore be an alternative.
The Alliance realizes that there is a crisis and therefore invoking the Charter might ameliorate the extent of the crisis and therefore mediate people’s responses to the crisis. So, in tonight’s lecture, I will try to answer the question: is there any future in the past? Is the Freedom Charter an alternative?
The best way to address the above questions is to briefly examine the context within which the Charter is being celebrated (its fifty years of existence), and gradually resorted to as perhaps a possible alternative macro framework that can rescue this country.
Sinking deep into the abyss: South Africa’s neoliberal plunge
There can be no debate as to the fact that the country is in a deep crisis. Capital is in crisis. The level of decay is reaching immeasurable proportions. Some have singled out despair within certain sections of the population as carrying the seeds of a serious national security implosion. For instance, it is estimated that 60% of adult South African under the age of 30 have never had a job. A sizeable number of these young people have university or technikon qualifications, and yet they cannot find employment. As we all know, and as some theoreticians would argue, these are the most radical of all strata in the society, the lumpenproletariat, those who have nothing to spare in a revolutionary upsurge, for they own nothing and have never owned anything.
The above crisis is simply a demonstration of the extent to which the ruling class in this country has plunged the economy into the most extreme of neoliberal prescriptions. Just last week, the ruling African National Congress released discussion documents that propagate the deregulation of the ‘labour market’. Already, and not surprisingly, even the ANC’s own allies have come out against these disturbing policy formulations.
A critical look at the above policies reveals that they complete the circle for a self-imposed Economic Structural Adjustment Programme under the Growth Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy. Just in the past few weeks, the ruling party (as government) demonstrated that indeed the plunge continues by introducing, or giving a hint to introduce, more austerity measures with regards to public spending.
Some of the most outrageous and frightening policy suggestions include: the rationalization of students at tertiary institutions under the guise of weeding out repeated failures out of the system, who are said to waist the country’s resources; and, the proposed health care system whereby private medical aid will be expanded thus crowding out more people out of the health care system and pushing them into the expensive and exclusionary private health sector.
It is possible to take just a few of the infamous ESAPs conditionalities and assess the extent to which they have been met or are being met by the South African government. The answer to the quantitative indicators “ACHIEVED” or “FULLY ACHIEVED” is an affirmative one in the following conditionalities: corporatisation (e.g. Eskom, Transnet, SABC etc) and privatization (e.g. Telkom, Aventura Resorts etc) of public companies; introduction of cost recovery measures for social goods (e.g. prepaid water and electricity system); relaxation of trade barriers so that import goods can enter the country under minimum conditions and cheaper rates; and, introduction of austerity measures for public spending.
As stated above, there is now a plan to deregulate the labour market by introducing the so-called dual system which will lead to young people being paid lesser and holding causal jobs, as if the current exploitation (underpayment) and casualisation of labour are not enough.
We are now also bombarded with misguided messages that the rand needs to be devalued (another conditionality) in order to attract foreign direct investment. One wonders if by FDI the Ruling Alliance would give the example of the criminals called Barclays Bank, which is about to buy a majority stake in the Absa Bank. But perhaps what is more disturbing for some of us is the fact that Cosatu is agreeing to some of these nonsensical suggestions.
It is possible to conclude, from the above and many other examples and analysis documented elsewhere, that the imperialist project has ‘succeeded’ in South Africa. Indeed, the discomfort that some of us had in the early 1980s when talk of negotiations were mooted, that such talks were only going to benefit the imperialist project and its local lackeys, has been proven correct.
All indications are that the above project is likely to take the country even further down, to the deepest and darkest abyss. Frantic attempts by the Ruling Alliance to devise intervention measures that do not address the fundamental problem in this country, which is the policy choice (neoliberalism) made in 1996, and even earlier, are not going to help.
The question that we need to address tonight and beyond is the following: if we agree that we are gathered here because of the collective concern about the direction that has been adopted in this country, do we then think that the Freedom Charter provides some of the answers that we are looking for?
To answer the above question let us turn our attention to the Charter itself, its evolution to be more precise.
Back to the source: The Origins of the Freedom Charter?
Let’s state the known. The Freedom Charter was adopted on the 26th June 1955, in Kliptown. It contains what its supporters would later regard as progressive alternatives for a free South Africa. A deeper look into history, and indeed an analysis of the Charter, suggest and indicate that the build-up to the Charter was formulated long before 1955. Let us delve briefly into that history, and its significance.
In a paper titled South Africa: a socio-political analysis Mandla Seleoane examines the history of the liberation movement. I found this paper useful for the purposes of this lecture. In that paper, Seleoane arrives at a considered conclusion that the political settlement which was in the offing could be traced to the philosophy and content of the ANC since in its inception, including the adoption of the Freedom Charter.
Another important document raises crucial questions about the origins of the Charter. Produced by the Azanian Labour Monitoring Group (ALMG) the document, titled The Freedom Charter and trade unions in South Africa gave a critical working class perspective on the Charter.
According to the ALMG, the first steps towards the Freedom Charter began in 1954 in Sophiatown. Professor ZK Matthews was instrumental in this initiative. Organizations that were involved in the initiative were: the ANC (representing Africans); the Coloured People’s Organisation; the South African Indian Congress; and the Congress of Democrats (representing whites). So, the meeting was going to take place along racial lines – representing as it were the “four nations” of South Africa.
The following year, on the 26 June 1555, the Freedom Charter was adopted by about 3000 people who attended the gathering in Kliptown. While the essence of the Charter remains what makes it attractive, two unsettling issues remain unanswered to this day.
Quoting former ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli, the ALMG draws our attention to sections in his book, Let my people go, where he (Luthuli) says that even the Nationalist Party was invited to the gathering. Why on earth did the organizers invite the NP defeats all logic. No, it does not! A critical reading of the Charter, as the ALMG continues to argue, and as we shall try to demonstrate here, might explain why. Perhaps the Nationalist Party (calling itself the New National Party) was belatedly honouring this invitation when it adopted the Charter before it dissolved recently!
The second unanswered question is who drafted the Charter. To support its argument the ALMG draws our attention to Luthuli’s words where he says that the Kliptown meeting “approved” the “broad proposals” that were later adopted. This, as the Group argues, suggests that there is no clarity about who drafted the Charter. For its part, the ANC argues that the Charter was a process of lengthy consultation throughout the country, a point that the ALMG acknowledges. But still, the explanation by the ANC does not say who drafted the Charter, and, it does not refute the allegation that there is no clarity on who drafted the Charter.
There are two other important consequences that arose after the 1955 Kliptown meeting. Firstly, the Charter divided the ANC. The Africanists, who grew from the ranks of the then radical Youth League, opposed the Charter. Those who supported the Charter came to be known as the Charterists, a name that still persists in certain quarters to this day.
The Charter was not adopted by the ANC at its 1955 convention due largely to opposition from the Africanists. It was only adopted at the April 1956 conference, where the Charterists were accused of “packing the conference with non-ANC members who voted without a roll call of actual ANC members.” Some have even gone to the extent of alleging that Nelson Mandela was instrumental in subsequent purges of those who were opposed to the Charter.
The second consequence of the Charter’s ‘adoption’ by the ANC is that it eventually led to a split. Africanists, some of who as a result of the purges, detached to found the Pan-Africanist Congress in 1959.
After providing an analysis of the Charter, which it concludes is not a bad document, the ALMG poses a pertinent question: why was it necessary to come up with a new document while there was already another document within the broad liberation movement, the Non-European Unity Movement’s 1944 Ten Point Programme?
While claiming to be Trotskyist in orientation the NEUM’s document was very much social democratic. A point-for-point comparison with the Charter reveals similarities.
Unable to find any reason why the Charter was drafted even with the existence of the Ten Point Programme the authors of the ALMG document arrive at the conclusion that it might as well be that the authors of the Freedom Charter wanted to draw a division between the supporters of the Ten Point Programme and those who support the Charter. Whatever the reason, from the very beginning the Charter failed to advance unity amongst the opponents of apartheid.
From the 1950s, throughout the exile years (1960 till the 1980s), there was very little heard about the Freedom Charter. In fact, during these intervening years the Charter is almost unheard of; it is a ‘dead document’. The next time that the Charter re-emerges is in 1985. Before going into that discussion let is turn our attention to an analysis of the Charter.
Contesting the Charter
Having outlined a brief history of the Charter, which is littered with disagreements, purges, splits and later, as we shall demonstrate, violence, let us now attempt an analysis of the Charter.
A reading of the Charter produces at least two categories of possible interpretations. The first comprise of what can broadly be seen as appealing (some will say progressive) sections in the Charter. The second would be the ambiguous and also problematic sections. We will start with the appealing sections, and end with the problematic.
What needs to be noted throughout the document though is that the Charter is a highly contradictory text. Its inherent contradictions stem from the fact that it seeks to appease all classes within the society. In the same way that the radical nationalist critique will hold that the Charter is ahistorical in its treatment of inequality in South Africa by failing or deliberately ignoring the reality of colonial conquest, a working class reading of the Charter exposes it to contain classical bourgeoisie democratic demands. Some have noted that:
According to Mandela, the Charter is a programme for the unification of people across on a democratic basis, not a socialist document for the unity of the working class only.
Mandela’s understanding of nationalization is seen as a means of creating wealth-generating opportunities for an indigenous bourgeoisie, rather than any form of concession to socialism. Yet, the Charter still continued to have a sense of appeal for certain sections within the liberation movement. What made the Charter appealing?
Some appealing sections in the Charter
The sections of the Charter that are appealing are surely the sections that those who argue that the ANC has moved away from its struggle history would argue need to be used in order to raise demands for a move away from the current neoliberal macro economic and political framework. The term appealing is used deliberately here. While some might want to argue that these are/were progressive demands it is my contention that they should be seen more as appealing to emotions than as concrete programmatic demands.
Under this category one can cluster the sections that deal with the right to “(enjoyment of) equal human rights”, “work and security”, “learning and culture”, and “houses, security and comfort”.
At face value these sections make for appealing demands. Broadly speaking, the demands in these sections can be said to be social democratic, akin to the advancements made mainly in Scandinavian countries. Another way of looking at these demands is by trying to understand certain sections of South African left politics as influenced by the Communist International (Comintern), after it came under the misguided and dictatorial influence of Joseph Stalin, which eventually led to its degeneration.
In dealing with the situation of colonies and semi-colonies the Comintern developed an erroneous analysis that posited that the working class in most colonies and semi-colonies was still under-developed and therefore there was a need to have a different understanding of the South African situation.
Examined from the perspective of a heavy Comintern influence at the time of the adoption of the Freedom Charter and throughout the years of exile, up until now, it is possible to argue that the SACP’s theory of Colonialism of a Special Type, and therefore its application – the Two-Stage Theory – might have shaped some of the provisions in the Charter. This translated into a belief, and practice, whereby what was conceived to be the primary goal of the liberation struggle was the achievement of a narrow nationalist goal, that is, the attainment of civil liberties for black people in general without attaching any class analysis to such struggle, or arguing that the struggle for socialism should be waged after independence. Logically, this meant that the struggle, as Mandela would confirm, was so that the black petty bourgeoisie would ascend into power firstly before the struggle for socialism could be waged.
It is possible, when using the above tools of analysis, to conclude that the Charter then fails to give any content to a possible class struggle. Just to buttress the point: it is erroneous to argue that South Africa, even during the 1950s, was not ready for a socialist revolution. The discovery of gold and diamond, the creation of the sugar plantations in Natal, and many other industrial developments, created the objective conditions for a strong proletarian movement.
The rise in strength of the Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU), the launching of Sactu in 1955, some of the labour strikes, the creation of townships as labour compounds, the creation of the migrant labour system, and the importation of labour from neighbouring countries and India, and to some extent China, all demonstrate that conditions have long been ripe for a working class struggle in South Africa. Those who drafted the Charter failed to recognize these developments, and therefore failed to come out with a progressive reading of the objective material conditions. So, the Charter fails the test as a potential working class ‘oriented’ programme. Does it pass as a nationalist project?
Some ambiguous and problematic sections of the Charter
The most ambiguous section in the Charter is its preamble, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”. This is not only ahistorical, it is illogical. The very claim that the country belongs to all removes all claim to struggle itself. It is illogical to wage a struggle, call it a national liberation struggle, and yet deny or ignore the simple question about the very existence of the conquerors and the conquered, of the victors and the vanquished.
The struggle in South Africa was not simply for equality between human beings. Nor was it simply, as others within our ranks want to argue, only about class. Failure on the side of certain sections of the liberation movement, especially the left, has led to a false analysis of the South African question where class has been privileged over race. It must be stated that this is an inverse of the same mistake committed by nationalists, who deny the existence of class. In the South African situation, then and now, race and class became intertwined as capitalistic development took a racial form and combined, wherein class became mediated through race.
The Charter fails to recognize the simple fact that one of the primary pillars in the liberation struggle was the struggle for land. Black people had been robbed off their land and therefore, through struggle, the fundamental question of land recon quest had to be addressed. To therefore argue that the land (South Africa) belongs to all those who live in it is ahistorical. Of course, the land project needs to be rescued from a narrow nationalist programme, which has the inherent pitfalls already noted above, that is, failure to realize that there were always classes within the black community. So, a radical nationalist agenda would be useful when approaching the land question.
With the inherent limitations of the nationalist programme in mind, the Charter fails the test for a radical national project. Such a project would, even not as clear as we might want it to be, take into account the existence of class. The best traditions of the radical nationalist project can be found within sections of the Black Consciousness Movement, especially towards the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In the same way that it fails the working-class orientation test, the Charter fails the radical nationalist project. We can therefore conclude that the Charter remains a bourgeoisie democratic platform.
Having tried to analyze the Charter as a text, let us go back to how it then became ‘popular’.
The Charter bounces back: 1985 and the aftermath
We have already established that the Freedom Charter was imposed on the Congress movement. This was accompanied by splits and accomplished through purges and suppression of dissent. But that did not end in the 1950s.
Throughout the exile years, or for many years after the 1960 bannings, there was very little heard about the Charter. In fact, we can say without any fear of contradiction that the Charter was almost dead.
The next time, after the 1950s, and perhaps during the Treason Trial, that we hear of the Charter is in 1985 when it turned thirty (30). This was two years after the United Democratic Front was launched, and the year in which (December 1985) Cosatu was launched.
The Charter was adopted by Cosatu after systematic suppression of those opposed to it. In its paper The Freedom Charter and trade unions in South Africa, referred to earlier, the Azanian Labour Monitoring Group (ALMG) deals with the manner in which the Charter was imposed upon union after union within Cosatu. Unions that were involved in struggles against the adoption of the Charter, as it was viewed not to cater for the interests of the working class were Mawu and Ccawusa. In fact, instead of uniting the working class the Charter brought about divisions.
It was not only within unions that the Charter brought strife. Within the ANC debates started to rage about the relevance of the Charter. A grouping calling itself the Marxist Workers Tendency released a document that, while broadly not rejecting the Charter, raised some critical questions.
As in the 1950s criticism levelled against the Charter was not tolerated. Not only were those seen as competitors against the Congress movement targeted, others within the Alliance, yet critical of the Charter, found themselves at the receiving end of intolerance. In December 1986 fifteen trade unionists regarded as workerists received a letter that warned them against pursuing their arguments against what they (the workerists) perceived as reformist positions advanced by the Charterists. The letter is worth quoting at some length. It read:
Despite several serious warnings to some of your reformist and Trotskyist collaborators, you still persist in spreading reactionary syndicalism workers ideologies to confuse and divert the spontaneous mass worker resistance into accepting fraudulent ‘reforms’ instead of a revolutionary transformation of South Africa. The fact that you talk endlessly about the leading role of the working class to overthrow capitalism proves that you are only armchair revolutionaries who in practice reject all forms of disciplined revolutionary organization.
It seems Stalin was a bit learned when compared to the writer of this letter. Note the embarrassing contradictions. Those who promote the “leading role of the working class to overthrow capitalism” are termed “reactionary” and “armchair revolutionaries”. Any resemblance to the recent labeling of some activists as “ultra-leftists”, “peace time revolutionaries”? Or, perhaps the writer/s were sincere; “overthrow of capitalism” has never been on the radar of some leaders of the liberation movement.
One of the people to receive the letter is someone I grew up under, Mandla Seleoane, then education officer within Ccawusa. Granted, the letter might have been the work of the apartheid regime, the so-called third force. Or, it might be that because Seleoane was a non-ANC member. But was it correct to deal with members of the other organizations like that?
Anyone disputing the fact that the ANC did order the liquidation of those critical of its programmes, including the Freedom Charter, should at least read an article by one Mzala or be reminded about a Radio Freedom broadcast that called for the BCM to be liquidated. The Kabwe Conference talked about the Trotskyists needing to be combated. Real combat took place, literally!
We should therefore not be surprised that a number of movements and activists are experiencing what some term repression. The seeds of that repression started a long time ago. Only now it has assumed state power.
The other important connection that we need to bring in is how the conflict between the BCM and UDF was linked to the Charter, and its use by imperialism. In 1985 United States Senator Edward Kennedy visited the country to promote negotiations. That was a year after the idea of a National Convention, which finds its roots in the Black Sash, was mooted. The BCM opposed idea.
Kennedy’s visit revived the idea of the National Convention. The conflict started at Regina Mundi, Soweto, after Kennedy was prevented from speaking by BCM activists. The internecine violence that followed the BCM’s active objection to Kennedy’s visit, which, as we said, became intricately linked to the politics of the Freedom Charter and negotiations, tore the black working class community apart. Five years later, the negotiations started.
The Charter is realized: The negotiated settlement
A number of books, articles and reports have been produced by many scholars on the nature of the negotiated settlement which started with the visit to Lusaka by groups of Afrikaner businesspeople and was kick-started after the release of political prisoners and the unbanning of the liberation movement.
A commonly held view, and a correct one for that, is that the Nationalist Party facilitated the negotiations because of, amongst other reasons, the economic crisis that was faced by the country, and the inability by white business to trade with other businesses outside the country and thereby enter the global economy.
While the above and many other reasons, including the revolutionary upsurge inside the country, and both economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, played a major and decisive role in the settlement, another factor is largely ignored by scholars – the politics of the Freedom Charter.
We have already demonstrated in the preceding sections that the Charter was based on liberal notions. What is more important is that the Charter failed, and still fails, to clearly articulate the true nature of the South African problem, which is colonial conquest, translated later into racial capitalism, and now multi-racial elite pacting and plunder. Of course, white capital remains dominant.
The Charter failed, and still fails, to articulate the simple fact that black people were robbed off their land and any settlement would have to address the land question, with the best model being reconquest, that is, expropriation of all land and its nationalization, with the aim ultimately of socialising it.
The Charter failed, and still fails, to address the race/class question, which, as some of us contend, could best be addressed through a clear working class-led struggle.
The political basis for negotiations, at least from one section of the liberation movement (the ANC and its allies), can be said to date back to the ANC’s founding in 1912. While it went through different stages of organizational expression, the ANC has always been a party of negotiations. Take for instance the following lame plea by Dr A.B, Xuma, ANC General Secretary, in his 1942 letter to General Jan Smuts:
… we are anxious not to embarrass the government… We humbly and respectfully request the Prime Minister to receive a deputation from the ANC and CNTU (Council of Non-European Trade Unions) … to assist you toward settlement of recent strikes and prevention of future strikes.
Some may disagree with this assertion by pointing us to the direction of Umkhonto we Sizwe’s (MK) Manifesto, the Morogoro Declaration, the Kabwe Declaration and many other pronouncements that gave the impression that what the ANC sought to achieve was complete takeover of power.
What we need to understand about the ANC is that it has always managed to communicate varied messages, at times contradictory. Even at a popular level, which is illustrative, these dual messages were prevalent. We will recall how the MK would be striking some targets while at the same time the songs in the townships would be calling for talks. We should not take the meaning of songs like: Oliver Tambo talk to Botha to release Mandela. Mandela will rule! at face value. They reflected, as it were, the internal contradictions within the ANC.
Hein Marais correctly observes:
As important is the fact that the co-existence of radical and moderate postures in the leadership and historical discourse of the ANC equipped it with an ambiguity that could cushion sharp policy turns.
Marais then provides what is critical to understand the effects of the Charter when he argues why the negotiated settlement should be understood not as a betrayal but as a natural and logical progression flowing out of the Freedom Charter. He writes:
Entering into negotiations therefore could not be portrayed as an about-turn or a betrayal of organizational principles. Likewise, the basically social-democratic constitutional principles issued by the ANC in mid-1989 could earnestly be presented as a distillation of its historical vision of change.
For Marais, that “vision of change” resided in the Freedom Charter – “which formed an ideological bedrock and key hegemonic instrument for the ANC.” Others argued that this hegemony that the ANC had over the liberation politics through, amongst others, the Freedom Charter, had translated into a “(firm) grip on the masses” largely because of its policy of “non-racialism” (emphasis added).
Marais concludes that the ANC gained an upper hand over other sections of the liberation movement not as a result of mass mobilization or armed struggle but from its mastery of international diplomacy and symbolic struggle. The Freedom Charter falls under the latter category.
It is possible to conclude, from the above, that the Freedom Charter shaped the mindset and ideological framework for negotiations. From the onset, it was a document that was aimed not at the complete obliteration of white power and privilege but at striking a balance between the aspirations of the oppressed black working class, the fears of the broader white populations, the ambitions of an aspirant black petty bourgeoisie, and the concerns of the propertied white bourgeoisie.
A careful examination of the Freedom Charter’s vagueness, and its attempt to please everyone and offend no one, and the nature of the negotiated settlement, suggest that the basic aims of the Freedom Charter have been ‘achieved’. No wonder, as we have already pointed out, that the Nationalist Party, which was invited and rejected the invitation to attend the Kliptown meeting, finally adopted the Charter, before disbanding and joining the ANC. In a nutshell, the Freedom Charter’s project of containment can be said to have been ‘achieved’.
From ideological framework and rhetoric to policy: The Freedom Charter influences the Reconstruction and Development of post-1994 South Africa
The unbanning of the liberation movement and the freeing of political prisoners from Robben Island by the last white president of South Africa, FW de Klerk, in February 1990, led to an immediate resumption of negotiations between sections of the liberation movement and the apartheid regime.
While criticized by other sections of the liberation movement, notably the Black Consciousness Movement, as a betrayal of the liberation struggle and capitulation to the regime and capital, the negotiations paved the way for the first democratic elections, held in April 1994.
Prior to the conclusion of the negotiations, and thereafter the successful holding of the elections, the ANC and its alliance partners formulated a post-apartheid broad policy framework, later known as the Reconstruction and Development Programme.
The RDP was to later become official government policy with a special ministry, headed by the former General Secretary of Cosatu, Jay Naidoo, known as the minister without portfolio. The ministry was charged with the responsibility of driving the RDP from the office of the president.
Symbolically, the placing of the ministry within the president’s office gave a sense of a certain level of seriousness that the RDP was regarded within the ruling alliance and therefore the government (then a government of national unity (coalition), shared with the Nationalist Party). Also, the choice of Naidoo, a worker leader, gave further impression that a pro-worker macro policy framework was being created.
The RDP was to be abandoned as a government programme within two years. It was replaced by the Growth Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy. For some, this signaled a shift to the right by the ANC.
Some viewed the RDP as a part-adaptation of the Freedom Charter. If the Charter was a liberatory manifesto, the RDP was a programmatic government expression of the liberation struggle ideals. But, was the RDP what it is always made out to be by its supporters? And, was it a reflection of the Freedom Charter?
It is beyond the scope of this paper to analyse each section of the RDP against the demands contained in the Freedom Charter. To illustrate the extent to which the RDP was, or was not, an extension of the Freedom Charter, and how such a manifestation could be regarded as addressing the primary demands of the black working class, let us take out one section from the RDP as an example – the land question.
We have already argued that the Freedom Charter fails both a working class orientation approach and a radical nationalist project’s goals with regards to the land question. What the Charter argues for is an ambiguous approach that is also ahistorical. It fails to call for land reconquest.
In addressing the land question the RDP employs two approaches, land redistribution and land restitution. However, what is more important is to note that the premise upon which land reform is based is a compromised one, from the very beginning.
The RDP focuses on apartheid laws that led to land dispossession. It also focuses on the 1913 land laws that sealed land dispossession. The term “sealed” is used deliberately here. All that the 1913 land laws did was simply to seal the conquest that began in 1652. Therefore, a genuine land reform programme would have to go far beyond 1913. Limiting the land conquest analysis to 1913 is to effectively accept the broader 1652 land conquest and instead focus only on the so-called forced removals.
The very premise upon which the RDP approaches the land question leads to it coming up with wrong ‘redress’ measures. One of these measures is the market-based purchase of land by the government with a view to restoring certain pieces of land to those who were ‘dispossessed’ off the land.
The RDP can be said to be a reflection of the Freedom Charter on the one hand, and its betrayal on the other. Firstly, we have already established that the Charter is ambiguous in terms of the class interests that it serves and/or seeks to advance. For this reason, the land question in the RDP was bound to reflect this confusion. For instance, on the one hand it argues for redress (a working class interest) while on the other subjecting land reform to market rules (a bourgeois interest). Also, we have established that the Freedom Charter is ambiguous and ahistorical about land ownership. Similarly, the RDP is elusive on this matter. It is ambiguous about the victors and the vanquished.
The RDP on the other hand can be said to be a betrayal of the Freedom Charter. The Charter talks about nationalization. While this reference to nationalization became hotly contested, as we have tried to demonstrate elsewhere in this paper, for many it remained a major rallying point around the Charter, especially for working class aspirations.
While having its own limitations it can be argued that nationalization would have been an option for land reconquest. In the absence of a socialist transition nationalization serves to place under the control of the state key means of production for the benefit of the population. Then, a number of creative ways can be employed to ensure that those means of production, in this case land, is restored to the people, with a clear working class bias. The current Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, led by Hugo Chavez, is a clear demonstration that it is possible to begin a process of restoration even within the limits of a pre-socialist set-up.
Taking the above a possible option that the RDP could have taken, that of nationalization as intimated in the Charter, can be read by the Charter’s supporters as a betrayal.
Having outlined the above, it should be emphasized, once again, that the rightward shifts visible in the RDP were themselves enabled by the ambiguity of the Freedom Charter. This point is captured well in one of the documents produced this year to critique the Charter. The document states the following:
The predominance of the different programmes at different stages of the ANC’s history is an expression of the unfolding contest for domination of the different class forces that make up the congress movement. Thus the replacement of the Freedom Charter first by the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) then the Growth Employment and Redistribution (Gear) mirrored the ascendancy of the black capitalist minority over the working class majority within the ANC.
As stated repeatedly in this paper, the Freedom Charter laid the basis for a rightward shift within the Congress movement. But what about the further rightward shift imposed through Gear? Is it fair to say the Charter also laid such a basis as the above quote seems to suggest, or was it yet another betrayal of the Charter?
The Charter betrayed! Or was it? The Growth Employment and Redistribution policy
On May Day, 1994, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, the iconic Nelson Mandela, said the following:
In our economic policies … there is not be a single reference to things like nationalisation, and this is not accidental. There is not a single slogan that will connect us to Marxist ideology.
This was an interesting about-turn, yet not a surprising one. Many were disturbed by these utterances because in March 1990 Mandela had said the following:
… the nationalization of the mines, banks and monopoly industry is the policy of the ANC and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable.
The change became conceivable in 1996 when the Growth Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy was adopted by the ANC; or was it imposed?
There is a view that Gear, South Africa’s self-imposed neoliberal macroeconomic policy that contains most of the IMF and World Banks policy prescriptions, was imposed without adequate debate within the structures of the ANC. This is beyond the scope of this paper. What we need to look at though is whether Gear was a betrayal of the Freedom Charter.
There can be no doubt that Gear represents a clear rightward move from the broad social democratic demands of the Freedom Charter. Both the Charter and the RDP can broadly be said to represent a Keynesian macroeconomic framework, a variation of the broader capitalist system. Both put forward demands that suggested that the state would have to play a central role in the reconstruction and development of the country.
Gear represented a move away from the centrality of the state in development. While there are currently claims that the ANC is moving back to a developmentalist state paradigm these claims cannot be backed by concrete evidence on the ground. Instead, the only evidence that we see is what we have already referred to earlier – that South Africa is sinking deeper into the abyss of neoliberalism. So, was the Freedom Charter betrayed?
The evidence presented before us suggests that indeed Gear is a naked betrayal of the Freedom Charter. However, if we agree that the Charter has always contained contradictions and ambiguity, which opened it to varied interpretations, then we also have to agree that perhaps the most ambiguous sections of the Charter (and there are many of them) opened policy spaces for rightward shifts. Lack of policy clarity is a sure way to open up any political process to political manipulation. Such manipulation can mean, in this era, that the neoliberal current will take a firm grip on processes.
As we have tried to demonstrate, all the developments that have taken place within the Congress movement did not come about by accident. It is only logical that the Freedom Charter provided the ideological space for the negotiated settlement. Also, it is only logical that a neoliberal policy emanated from the ranks of the ANC. The very path followed to ‘popularise’ the Freedom Charter, that of suppressing leftwing tendencies from both within and without the Congress movement were bound to catch-up with the movement at some time.
On being asked about his reaction to Joseph Kennedy’s assassination Malcolm X is said to have said something like: “America has always exported violence. It was only a matter of time that that violence would come back to take America’s favourite son. The chicken are coming home to roost!” (not sure about the exact phrasing).
In the same manner, the ambiguity and contradictions within the Freedom Charter; the lack of tolerance that characterised its ‘popularization’ and how those who dared to question it were dealt with; the ‘purges’ and splits that accompanied its ‘adoption’ within the ANC; and the violence that accompanied its ‘popularisation’; all these were bound to come back to haunt the ranks of the Congress movement. Since its adoption, Gear, and its consequences, is a nemesis within the ranks of the Congress movement. What then should be our attitude towards calls for the revisiting of the Freedom Charter?
Now, the big question: Is the Freedom Charter the way to go?
At the beginning of the paper we stated that there are two forces that are currently involved in raising and leading debates about the Freedom Charter. The first one is the ruling alliance. The second one would be the broad left outside of the Alliance. We have also noted that there are those, like myself, who would argue that the debate about the Charter was concluded a long time ago. So, this paper has mainly focused, in some way, on the ‘tussle’ for the Charter between the ruling alliance and the broader left. Let’s first deal with the ruling alliance.
In attempting to answer the question whether the Freedom Charter provides an alternative for the ruling alliance we need to recall the arguments made earlier in this paper; that the alliance can be said to be revoking the Charter for two reasons.
Firstly, this year being the fiftieth anniversary of the Charter there are genuine sentimental reasons of attachment to the Charter. Secondly, and more importantly, in the era of capitalist decay in this country, and the world over, the Freedom Charter offers the convenient message that still appeals to the working class in general. It is therefore ‘necessary’ to invoke the section “There shall be housing…” when residents of Kennedy Road, Harrismith, Gugulethu and many other areas where uprisings similar to those experienced only during the 1980s erupt. And we can be sure that there will be more eruptions and correspondingly more drumming of the Charter’s clauses by the ruling alliance. So, for the alliance, the Charter provides a convenient public relations tool.
The trickier question is whether the Charter provides a tool for the broader left, especially the social movements. In order to get the current thinking within the social movement let us consider the following reflection, provided by Mondli Hlatshwayo as part of the debate about the Charter within the movement:
Those who are keen on debating the Charter at all costs will respond and argue that they want to engage the working class, which votes the ANC. There is always a glaring error in such an argument because today the working class is not struggling under the banner of the ANC. In fact the sections of working class that are struggling for social services are not unfurling the banner of the ANC but they are burning it in concrete struggle. It our understandable in the 1980s to orientate to the ANC because the masses saw it as an organisation of struggle but today the masses are not struggling under its banner.
During the debate some comrades wanted us to believe that the demands of the APF such as access to water, electricity, water, job creation, housing and so on are similar to those of the freedom charter. Again this is a fundamental error that has to be avoided at all times. We cannot even begin to think of comparing the demands of the APF with those of the charter whose foundations are based on politics of flirting with the apartheid forces and dividing the oppressed along “racial” lines. The demands of the APF are based on the politics of non-collaboration and a principled struggle against the neoliberal policies of the ANC and its allies. These are fundamental principles which separate the demands of the APF with those of congress and the charter.
With such clarity, the debate about the Freedom Charter should have long been regarded a non-starter within the social movements. But it is perhaps what Hlatshwayo emphasizes later in his paper that is at the core of the confusion that is raging on whether the Charter is an alternative or not. Hlatshwayo takes the bull by its horn by addressing the very nature of the social movement, which explains why there is such an obsession with the Charter. He writes:
We are aware of the fact that some comrades who are pushing for the debate on the charter come from the congress “tradition”. During the seminar on the charter some comrades argued that the charter was their guiding document and they were also part of the UDF, which promoted the document. The very same comrades have been calling for workers and trade unions to break the alliance with the ANC. But when workers failed to break the alliance in a formal sense, these comrades criticized workers for having a sentimental and moral attachment with the ANC. The Freedom Charter debate has also revealed that some of our comrades also have a sentimental and moral attachment to the politics of congress. We were also part of congress as militants but we could see the limitations of its politics as we were engaged in struggles. Subsequent to that those who could explain the glaring limitations of congress convinced us peacefully. They were able to explain the limitations of congress and the charter. In that sense we broke the ``alliance``. Having broken the ``alliance``, what are our challenges?
Before attempting to answer the question posed by Hlatshwayo, about the actual challenges faced by the post-1994 anti-capitalist initiatives, let us address some of the limitations of the argument/s in favour of a debate about the Freedom Charter, in addition to what Hlatshwayo raises.
In the first place, it seems odd that the broader left outside of the ruling alliance, which can be said to have taken the struggle against capitalism to greater heights, would want to find some answers in a document (and programme) that, as we have tried to demonstrate in this paper, was fraught with ambiguities, inability to unite progressive forces, trappings of Stalinist practices, and openness to opportunistic interpretations and later hijacking by the petty bourgeoisie.
It should be logical that a programme that was open to the above would become yet again dangerous instrument if adopted by a movement that claims to be totally opposed to and fighting against capitalism. Flirtation with a confused and ambiguous document that is the Freedom Charter might in fact undo the many years of work that went into building the social movements.
Mark my words! In the same manner that it happened during the 1950s and 1980s, the Freedom Charter will definitely divide the social movement.
Secondly, it is rather odd that in the era of such capitalist development (read decay) the movement should be wanting to flirt with a document (programme) that fails to address itself explicitly to the struggle for socialism; not unless there are still hidden elements within the movement that still harbour two-stageism and other outdated approaches. Can this be the case? Can it be that those within the movement who come from a Congress tradition have not completely shed some of the theoretical and ideological trappings of Congress? Unfortunately, this is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it would be interesting to have a frank discussion about the ideological and theoretical orientation of the movement.
What, then, are the “challenges” facing the post-1994 anti-capitalist struggle and the organizations involved in it?
The first clear challenge is a more theoretical/ideological one. It is imperative that the movement realizes that the struggle needs new tools of analysis. The Freedom Charter, and other pre-1994 demands, like the openly socialist Azanian Manifesto, which is where I come from, might have been relevant and revolutionary enough for a particular era. For instance, they addressed themselves largely to apartheid capitalism, or at least as it was the case with the Azanian Manifesto. But apartheid capitalism has changed form. We now have, in this era, a much more complex situation of unfulfilled demands on the one hand and the ascendancy of a new class of capitalist, the rainbow bourgeoisie class.
It is therefore logical that the movement, and the left in general, should move beyond the lessons and demands of yesteryear and formulate strategies and demands that address themselves to the uniqueness of a completely new era.
The second challenge that the movement must address itself is to once and for all break with the Congress tradition. It is ironical, and perhaps even hypocritical, for some within the movement to be calling for Cosatu’s break from the ruling alliance while they still find themselves trapped within the Congress tradition.
If the movement wants to go the route of having a clear set of demands, then the answer does not lie in the Freedom Charter. The Charter is no Communist Manifesto or The Transitional Program. Its longevity has long expired. And I repeat, if the movement wants to experience splits and unnecessary strife, let it increase its flirtations with the Freedom Charter.
It is my hope that I have managed to give a comprehensive critique of the Freedom Charter in the era of capitalist decay in South Africa. A brief analysis of the current neoliberal grip on the country’s political and economic processes was provided. Then, a historical analysis of the Charter’s effect and ‘popularisation’ was offered. Also, a textual analysis of the Charter was offered. It was against this background that an argument was made the Freedom Charter has a history of failing to unite the liberation movement. But more importantly, the Charter opened up the struggle by the working class for it to be high-jacked by predatory classes in the society.
Lastly, I considered the debate that is taking place particularly within the social movement, that there must be an initiative to review the Charter and assess the extent to which its core demands have been met or abandoned by the ruling party.
It is my contention and conclusion tonight that any attempt to revoke the Freedom Charter will fail to bring any progressive impetus into the movement. It is my considered opinion that in the era of capitalist decay in South Africa there can be no future in the past.