Clem Sunter

A progress report on the Freedom Charter

2014-02-26 12:15

Clem Sunter

Almost 59 years ago, at the end of June 1955, the Congress of the People adopted the Freedom Charter in Kliptown. How have we done against the 10 main headings in the charter?

1. The people shall govern

We are now a fully-fledged democracy where every citizen has an equal vote, so you can tick this box. There is a growing belief that the 2014 election will be the first since 1994 where the ANC will not achieve an overwhelmingly dominant result. For the first time, the ruling party will be held accountable by the people for its actions and non-actions. That is what democracy - people power - is all about.

2. All national groups shall have equal rights

All apartheid laws and practices have been scrapped and hate speech is banned (though one can argue that the law is not properly enforced). People on the whole are free to use their own languages and develop their own culture and customs. On the other hand, black economic empowerment is viewed by many folk in the minority groups as reverse discrimination. The counterargument is that the programme is there to correct past injustices. it remains a bone of contention which sadly divides our nation and incentivises talented young people of the wrong colour to emigrate.

3. The people shall share in the country's wealth

This is the most contentious section of the Freedom Charter as it contains the famous clause: "The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole." It is one of the main planks of the EFF's manifesto, though they would argue that the assets mentioned should be transferred to the state acting on behalf of the people. Therein lies the problem in that the world is replete with examples of the state extracting wealth for the few and not passing it on to the many. Nevertheless, great strides have been made in the elimination of poverty with welfare grants and housing. The final clause of this section states: "All people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions." Amen to that: you do need economic freedom to accompany political freedom for a stable society.

4. The land shall be shared among those who work it

Restrictions of land ownership on a racial basis have been ended but all the land has not been redivided among those who work it. Nor has the state really assisted "with implements, seed, tractors and dams to save the soil". Hence, the land redistribution programme so far has had a 90% failure rate. The real point to make is that farming as an industry has changed dramatically since the 1950s. It is now high-tech and more and more a big business game. Moreover, much of South Africa is non-arable and therefore not suited to subsistence farming. Ownership of land is still a highly emotional topic and the best way to address it is to get the country's super-farmers to share their expertise with the emerging farmers and maybe, like some mining companies, have employee share ownership schemes or co-operatives. Around cities, a gap exists for small-scale niched farming enterprises. Yet adopting best practice is the only way to ensure food security and at the same time achieve the charter's aim to "banish famine and land hunger".

5. All shall be equal before the law

On the whole, this section has materialised, but there is a suspicion that connected people have ways and means of side-stepping the law. Equally, independence of the judiciary must be as jealously guarded as independence of the media. One sentence in this section reads: "The police force and army shall be open to all on an equal basis and shall be the helpers and protectors of the people." What an excellent description of their role.

6. All shall enjoy equal human rights

Pass laws and permits have been abolished and we are free to travel without restriction. We also have a Human Rights Commission. However, read this clause in relation to the general level of freedom in South Africa today: "The law shall guarantee to all their right to speak, to organise, to meet together, to publish, to preach, to worship and to educate their children." Hmm! Social networks and the internet do help but secrecy laws do not.

7. There shall be work and security

All who work are now free to form trade unions, but men and women of all races do not yet receive equal pay for equal work. South Africa does have unemployment benefits, 40-hour working weeks, industry minimum wages, paid annual leave, sick leave and maternity leave – not everywhere but in most formal businesses. The crunch is that we have an enormous unemployment rate at 25% and more than 50% among young people. The unemployed do not enjoy these benefits. The last clause in this section states: "Child labour, compound labour, the tot system and contract labour shall be abolished." Where are we on that one?

8. The doors of learning and culture shall be opened

Two clauses in this section read as follows: "Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children" and "Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit". While nobody can disagree with these objectives, we have a long way to go to provide equality of opportunity on the scale envisaged in 1955. Two other worthy goals are that "All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands" and "the aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace". Now is the time to deliver on these lofty ideals.

9. There shall be houses, security and comfort

The opening lines are: "All people shall have the right to live where they choose, be decently housed, and to bring up their families in comfort and security." Moreover, "slums shall be demolished, and new suburbs built where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, crèches and social centres." Against that bar set in 1955, we have made progress; but as the informal shacks and protests over service provision attest, we still have a long way to go. Laws leading to the break-up of families have been repealed, yet we still have migrant labour. As for a preventive health scheme, free medical care and hospitalisation with special emphasis on young mothers, children and orphans and the disabled, the hospitals and clinics do exist. Nevertheless, they can be run much more effectively. "Rest, leisure and recreation shall be the right of all." Tell that to the young executives working 70 hour weeks!

10. There shall be peace and friendship

One of the clauses in this section says: "Peace and friendship amongst all our people shall be secured by upholding the equal rights, opportunities and status of all." Alas, we still do not have a united South Africa which is a precondition for economic success in the ultra-competitive world we live in. One hopes that after the 2014 election a real attempt is made to heal the divisions that still exist between our citizenry. On the other hand, we are "a fully independent state which respects the rights and sovereignty of all nations". Another clause which demands respect is that we "shall strive to maintain world peace and the settlement of all international disputes by negotiation - not war". America too could learn something from these words.


As a common vision of what we should be striving for, the Freedom Charter is an evergreen document. Written in 1955, it transcends all those growth and development plans of more recent vintage. The thoughts are straightforward and not expressed in the convoluted language we have grown accustomed to nowadays. Hats off to ZK Matthews and Rusty Bernstein for their idea of creating the charter in the first place. It should be used as a balanced scorecard against which the progress of our government is measured every year.

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