SA has to own the Charter

2015-01-21 06:01

When was the last time you heard an American political party claiming the Declaration of Independence as its own?

Or a British party claiming ownership of the different ­incarnations of the Magna Carta? Or a French party saying that the Declaration of the Rights of Man belonged to it?

It’s likely you have never heard any of the above. That’s because political parties in those countries recognise that the documents, which formed the basis of their written and unwritten constitutions, belong to all citizens, regardless of political affiliation.

Strange then that South Africa’s governing party should go out of its way to “reclaim” the Freedom Charter as its sole property. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said on the eve of the party’s 103rd anniversary that it would use this year to put a party stamp on the Charter.

“It is back to basics. This is the year of the Freedom Charter. It is the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter, that is the emphasis because every Jack and Jill claims to be the custodian of the Freedom Charter these days,” said Mantashe.

And when the highly entertaining President Jacob Zuma concluded his speech, he declared 2015 “the year of the Freedom Charter and unity in action for economic freedom”, indicating the ANC will bore us to death quoting from the charter over the next 12 months.

Before proceeding to reclaim the Freedom Charter by telling his audience how the ANC was fulfilling the objectives of the document, Zuma took it on a tour of this year’s many anniversaries.

Did you know it will be 30 years since the Kabwe conference, 30 years since Cosatu was formed, 25 years since the ANC Women’s League was relaunched and 20 years since Joe Slovo died? If you didn’t know this important stuff, you do now, ­courtesy of the man from Nkandla.

One can kind of understand why the ANC would want to selfishly lay claim to the charter. It is a beautiful document and contains lofty values and objectives.

The Congress of the People, the gathering that drew it up in Kliptown in 1955, was the closest South Africa had to a democratic Parliament then.

When the charter was adopted, it was the consolidation of the aspirations of multitudes of South Africans who had been canvassed by the ANC and its

allies. For decades it served as a guiding light for those fighting to overthrow apartheid and make South Africa a better society.

This gained traction in the 1980s when the United Democratic Front and Cosatu adopted it as their political platform. The ANC used it as a starting point for formulating bargaining positions during the constitutional negotiations.

Although many people will dispute it, the Constitution we love to boast about owes a lot to the Freedom Charter.

In the recent past, many have mocked the Freedom Charter as an outdated, idealistic document with impractical and unattainable aims. Its critics have argued that we should move on and focus on 21st-century challenges. Those at the other end of the spectrum say the government should be implementing the Freedom Charter as religiously as an ­Islamic State member would carry out what he ­believes the holy texts dictate.

Both ends of this debate are wrong. The Freedom Charter is neither a policy document nor a religious text. It is a vision of what we can be. And because visions like these are created in circumstances of idealism, they are mostly unattainable. They just force us to be a better populace.

The American declaration tells us that “all men are equal”, that they are “endowed?...?with certain unalienable rights” that include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

After 200 years, the US is battling to stay true to these values, as evidenced by the inequality and ­racism that plagues it.

Ditto the French, whose founding document says, “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” and “social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good”.

Long after its adoption, France continued treating darker people in the colonies and in the country as inferior.

Today, racial discrimination takes the form of the economic marginalisation of mainly immigrant communities. Less lofty was the Magna Carta, which in 1215 somewhat placed royalty and nobility above other citizens.

It nevertheless concludes by pledging that all “the subjects of our realm shall have and hold all aforesaid liberties, rights and concessions duly and in peace, freely and quietly, fully and entirely”.

But the next few centuries saw the British plundering other territories and playing a leading role in the slave trade. This legacy still haunts Britain today and is responsible for many of its societal fissures.

Written against the backdrop of apartheid, the Freedom Charter emphasises equality, the sharing of the country’s resources and the attainment of a harmonious society.

Like the other documents, its objectives are highly ambitious. But they speak to our universal desire for a better South Africa and has the capacity to be as timeless as the other great visionary documents.

But to achieve this timelessness, it has to be owned by all South Africans and not just the country’s governing party.

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