The Freedom Charter is a love letter from the people of our land, of a certain time in our history, to the future.
When the “whites only” election of 1948 consolidated the Herrenvolk morality of the National Party, the oppressed of the land responded on levels of organisation and in a spirit of militancy hitherto unknown since the Bambatha Rebellion - the armed rising against the poll tax led by Chief Bhambatha kaMancinza when the spear of armed resistance fell onto the bloodied ground of defeat.
From the 1950s onwards, the path of moderation contoured into the freedom trail marked by institutions and groupings of a nascent civil society, pioneered by the liberation movements, from the Cape to the far north.
In 1955, 50000 volunteers went door to door in townships and rural homesteads to listen to the “freedom demands” of the people. These were written down and summarised into a charter of intent which was ratified by an open-air Congress of the People in June of that year at Kliptown, Soweto.
Pallo Jordan, a Defiance Campaign organiser, writes of the volunteer corps known as the “Amadelakufa”, those who committed themselves to the cause of freedom even unto death:
“The volunteers were not the soldiers of a black army pledged to fight a civil war against the whites.” Instead they were unarmed foot soldiers committed to pamphleteering, the mobilising of communities into strike actions and so on.
They were referred to as volunteers “because they volunteer to face the penalties of imprisonment and whipping”, the statutory response to their demand for full citizenship.
In 1980, I was living in Mitchells Plain, and through the ministry of the Anglican Church became friends with Bonita Bennett, a University of Cape Town student. Bonita gave me my first copy of the Freedom Charter.
She had sourced it from Special Collections in the African Studies Department at UCT during Orientation week in 1980. Banned literature was kept in the department.
“I went to the catalogue cards and looked under ‘freedom’ as that’s what I wanted to know about. The Freedom Charter popped up. I took down the reference number and I looked under ‘Africa and freedom’ and the cross-referencing of the charter caught my eye. The same thing happened when I looked under ‘black people and freedom’. Without knowing what it was I thought that it must be a document of note and requested it. I was so inspired by it that I decided to make copies for my newly formed comrades in Mitchells Plain.”
The Freedom Charter was written in the poetry of faith. Even now, when I read it aloud, I hear the voices, raised in prayers, of those who gathered at our midweek prayer meetings in Elsies River and later, whenever I ministered as a young priest. It was a contemporary expression, in so many ways, of The Beatitudes of Jesus.
Today, it is a cornerstone of our Constitution. My generation of church activists were recruited by the struggles of our parents, the poverty where we lived. We wanted to know about freedom, and the liberation movements provided a political and social bridge into the communities of our fellow Africans. We had been separated from and lived in mutual ignorance of one another.
As for Bonita, that apostle of the Freedom of Charter, I appreciated her gift of that much-photocopied document of the Struggle so much, that I offered her my hand in marriage.
* The Very Rev Michael Weeder is the Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.