Drawing up the Freedom Charter

2015-03-21 00:00

THIS year marks the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter and Weekend Witness caught up with a man who, despite playing a small part, was instrumental in putting it together.

Karuppa Swaminathan Gounden (87) was recently invited as a special guest at this year’s state of the province address in Pietermaritzburg.

At the event, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu praised Gounden for being one of the few remaining political activists who participated in the Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955.

Mchunu said the gathering drafted the Freedom Charter that forms the basis of the South African Constitution.

Gounden’s Asherville home in Durban is adorned with trophies honouring him for his service to his community.

There are pictures of his late wife, Savanthalay, and his five children of whom he speaks fondly.

Born in 1927, Gounden was the second youngest of seven children.

His family was poor and growing up in Magazine Barracks, Durban, was difficult, he recalled.

“My father worked at Mitchell Park Zoo and earned eight pounds. My mother was a housewife.

“The Barracks were like a hostel. In those days we lived a communal life sharing toilets and bathrooms,” he said.

At the age of seven, Gounden was sent to Depot Road Primary School where he completed his primary school certificate, the equivalent of Grade 8.

He was forced to leave school to support his family in 1942 after his father died.

He took up a job selling newspapers earning 25 cents and later found a permanent job at a shoe factory in Jacobs, south of Durban, in 1945.

“During that time I joined the South African Leather Workers Union, serving on the executive committee. I also joined the Natal Indian Congress.”

Gounden said in 1953 in Cape Town the provincial congress suggested that a national convention needed to be formed in which all groups would be represented to consider national problems and draw up the Freedom Charter for a democratic South Africa.

“The ANC and other parties got together and recruited volunteers to go out into the communities and canvass people for their suggestions on what to include in the Freedom Charter.

“We went door to door asking people what they wanted to be included in the constitution of a new democratic government,” he said.

He recalls going into areas occupied by Indians where people asked for houses, water and electricity.

Gounden said the demands were separated according to priority. “Once they were finalised they were handed over to the Congress of the People in 1955 … Comrade Billy Nair addressed the crowds during the conference, dealing with labour laws, housing, land ownership and human rights.

“At the end of that conference we adopted 10 clauses that were going to be included in the Freedom Charter. We agreed that when South Africa becomes fully independent and democratic, the new government would include the 10 clauses in the Constitution.”

Looking back, Gounden said he laughs at some of the injustices that the apartheid government imposed on people of colour.

“During apartheid we never enjoyed freedom. There were so many laws designed to oppress black people. Ironically, I have never seen the Constitution but I hope that those 10 clauses were included,” he said laughing.

One of Gounden’s biggest concerns about the country’s state of affairs are the service delivery strikes.

“Some people still ask me about the houses we fought for, but I know that the government is doing the best it can to deliver … it can’t happen overnight.”

Gounden believes SA is a long way from achieving what the Constitution was designed to achieve.

“The population is growing and so are the demands. I believe it is going to take time to completely satisfy the masses.”

When asked about the current political dispensation, he said: “No matter what they say about the ANC, I am still ANC and I will die in the ANC.”

However, he admitted: “Back then we had more refined and mature leaders. Today it’s not the same. Some politicians only have money on their minds.”

• amanda.khoza@witness.co.za

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