Inspector Kallie Etsebeth points at the wall where Nelson Mandela wrote the Freedom Charter at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria when he was held there during his trial. Picture: Liza van Deventer

The ANC’s vision of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, equal and prosperous society basically summarises the Freedom Charter, says Jeff Radebe.

Johannesburg - In deciding the relevance of the Freedom Charter in our transformation discourse, some have dwelt much on the specificity of its “text” as opposed to the general thrust of its “spirit”.

For a document that was drafted 59 years ago, it goes without saying that the relevance of its text will gradually drift into oblivion, because new dynamics demand different ways to specific political, social and economic navigation of prevailing challenges.

All these changing conditions considered, we must answer the question why the ANC continues to consider the Freedom Charter, adopted in 1955 at the Kliptown Congress of the People, as its basic policy document.

The answer lies in the duality often attributed to such important historic documents, that being their “letter” and “spirit”.

When we speak of the letter and spirit of the constitution in one breath, it is because we are mindful of the fact that the “letter” may have missed some of the important details that we intended to be pronounced by such documents, but nonetheless whose inclusion would have made the document too bulky.

But where the letter in a constitution overrides the spirit on a technical basis, there is no doubt that a historic document drafted 59 years ago would lean more on its spirit than the pragmatism of its text.

Thus the question that we should be asking ourselves on the occasion of the 59th Anniversary of the Freedom Charter is: What were the broad policy objectives of those who gathered in Kliptown in 1955 to adopt this historic document?

The Freedom Charter must be read against the injustices that it sought to annul. By 1955, unlike in 1912 when the ANC was formed, the liberation struggle had made qualitative leaps, and so did the oppressive environment.

Apartheid, which was more intensive and violent – particularly during the Defiance Campaign Against Unjust Laws of 1952 – had replaced the outright conventional wars of colonial conquest.

That is why in its opening lines, it declared that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”. In the same breath, the Freedom Charter declaration asserted that “no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”.

We could argue these two important points were its most defining features. But reading through the Freedom Charter, there is no doubt that its principles informed the content of South Africa’s constitution. Therefore our constitution has the charter embedded in it.

Two important points need to be borne in mind when analysing a document such as the Freedom Charter. First, one must note that the outcome inspired by the need to install a just order remains relevant and is the golden thread of the charter as it is of our post-1994 democratic constitution. Second, that to the extent the Freedom Charter speaks on the methods to achieve those outcomes, that was largely influenced by the understanding of what was considered practicable at the time of its drafting and adoption.

In understanding the relevance of the Freedom Charter, one needs merely look into the various subheadings such as “the people shall govern”, “all national groups shall have equal rights”, “the people shall share in the country’s wealth”, “the land shall be shared among those who work it”, “all shall be equal before the law”, “all shall enjoy equal human rights”, “there shall be work and security”, “the doors of learning and culture shall be opened”, “there shall be houses, security and comfort” and “there shall be peace and friendship”.

Looking into government policies since 1994 up to the present, there is no doubt that one can see how the charter has inspired ANC policy even beyond the constitution. The ANC’s vision of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, equal and prosperous society basically summarises the Freedom Charter.

Thus when the ANC presents both its policy manifesto and parliamentary lists towards national general elections, it is after these have undergone robust scrutiny by the rank-and-file of the movement.

The ANC has even taken the matter of policy formulation further by inviting the general public to make submissions on what the ANC must seek to do in its five-year mandates, as per its manifesto. This fulfils the very crucial principle enshrined in the Freedom Charter and for which many paid the ultimate price – and that is, “the people shall govern”, this being both with regards to parliamentary representatives and policies that inform the government transformation programme.

Critical to the anti-colonial struggle as well as the anti-apartheid struggle was the question of land. First and foremost Africans were dispossessed of their land and it was thereafter that a complex systemic oppression was unleashed on them under the apartheid regime.

Recently, Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti announced the targets to have at least 50 percent of farmland transferred to the farmworkers proportionate to the time they had spent working on those farms.

Recently, one of the longest strikes in the mining sector has been waged through a union not even aligned to the ruling party. The ANC did not forcefully stop that strike because the Freedom Charter declares that “all who work shall be free to form trade unions, to elect their officers and to make wage agreements with their employers”.

Since 1994, the ANC government has allocated more funds to education than any other departmental budget vote because the education of South Africa’s black children was deliberately undermined by the apartheid regime.

Incidentally, it was in the same June month that thousands of schoolchildren protested this inferior education system, catalysed by the decision Afrikaans was to be the medium of instruction in all schools. By removing biases in education, the ANC is not only eradicating a legacy that had been central to marginalising the black majority, but also responding positively to the injunction by the charter that “the doors of learning and culture shall be opened”.

While the charter text stipulates that “mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the people as a whole”, the spirit to ensure economic parity remains current ANC policy.

Conclusively, the Freedom Charter has stood the test of time and remains as relevant as ever in guiding the resolution of the trio challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment

As South Africa commemorates the 59th anniversary of the adoption of the Freedom Charter, this priceless document remains relevant in helping move South Africa forward.

* Jeff Radebe is head of the ANC policy unit and Minister of Planning, Performance, Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent