Thursday, November 30, 2017

From the Freedom Charter to the Democracy Charter

(Paper delivered at the 2017 Carolina Low Country and Atlantic World Conference on “Transforming Public History from Charleston to the Atlantic World,” June 16, 2017)

Mark Solomon

In 1955, as the dark night of apartheid was descending in force upon South Africa, the liberation movement of the South African people, the African National Congress with its allies rallied 50,000 volunteers to spread out through townships and countryside to learn the needs and priorities (“freedom demands”) of the people. Those demands were collected and synthesized into a “Freedom Charter,” a definitive expression of the democratic will of the country’s majority. It was adopted by 3,000 delegates at a semi-clandestine “Congress of the People,” convened at Kliptown, South Africa on 26 June 1955.  

The list of demands in the Charter was more than a recitation of a growing movement’s aspirations. Those demands recapitulated the historic experience of the South African people’s struggle for freedom and of ANC’s experience since its founding in 1912. Crucially, they constituted the vision of a liberated society and a strategy for attaining that liberation.  

A vision is essential to all transformative movements. Without one, a movement is rudderless, without clear objectives and purpose. That can be fatal to the clarity and fighting capacity of the movement. The vision inherent in the Ten Demands that constituted the core of the Charter was grounded an analysis of the past and present social realities of life in South Africa. That analysis located the country’s brutal white supremacy in the nation’s capitalist system enforced with military brutality to protect and aggrandize the intense exploitation of the native black majority and other oppressed nationalities.

The vision of a liberated South Africa was manifested in the Charter’s opening words: “We, the people of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it….” An apartheid government rules on “injustice and inequality” without the will of the people who have been “robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace.” That declaration committed the liberation movement to a future of equality – with equal rights and opportunities for all without distinction based on color, race, sex or belief.

The emotional and political heart of the Charter was a pledge to build a democracy that pervaded every aspect of South African life. That meant free universal education shorn of the color line, an end to segregated slums and a commitment to decent housing for all. It meant universal health care founded on an end to hunger, reproductive choice and special care for mothers and children.

In a society with a multitude of ethnic and tribal groups, all were guaranteed the right to their own languages and cultures and “protected by law” against insults and white supremacist attacks on the group’s race and national pride.

At the heart of the Charter’s vision was a contention that substantive democracy required deep structural and institutional change in South Africa’s economy – change that deeply transformed not just the country’s politics and culture, but its economic structure as well. Thus, the Charter advanced a vision of restoring the country’s wealth to its people. That meant people’s ownership of mineral wealth beneath the soil as well as banks and monopolized industry. It meant that every South African had an equal right to training in crafts and professions. All racial restrictions on ownership of land would end. Forced labor and farm prisons would be abolished.

That vision of economic equality is yet to be realized. The liberation of economic institutions has proved to be harder to achieve than political progress towards equality. The promise of land reform and re-division of lands among working farmers also has not been achieved. However, that struggle in South Africa for a decent life goes on in the face of neo-liberal globalization generated by transnational capital. That globalization has led to a frontal assault upon working people around the word – driving wages down, assaulting labor’s rights, accelerating inequality, bankrupting peripheral countries, engaging in seemingly endless wars and uprooting populations, thus creating vast numbers of refugees.

Against that background, many of the Charter’s social and cultural objectives have been stymied by globalized corporate power. Yet, the Freedom Charter remains a guidepost to emancipation.


The Charter’s vision of a just society became the basis for one of the most progressive constitutions in the world – one that aspires to full citizen participation at every level of government. One person, one vote is constitutionally guaranteed, as is equal pay for equal work. No South African can be imprisoned without a fair trial; punishment for crimes aim at re-education, not vengeance; all laws that discriminate based on gender, race, color or belief have been repealed. An indivisible right to speak, to organize, to publish, to form trade unions, etc. is assured.

The Freedom Charter in 1955 recognized the inseparable link between peace and domestic development. It embraced the principle of self-determination for all and the transcendent need to advance diplomacy over war, recognizing that genuine social progress can advance only with peace.

On its second day, the Kliptown conference was broken up by police with Nelson Mandela in disguise, barely escaping arrest. Before their departure, the delegates shouted approval of the Charter with pledges that they will fight side by side throughout their lives until liberation is won. The Charter guided the long struggle for freedom through massive non-violent resistance and armed struggle when conditions warranted such an approach.

The Freedom Charter embedded a strategy along with its vision of liberation. That strategy was based on building a mass multiracial movement aimed at establishing a non-racial South Africa. Thus, the Charter addressed the needs and demands of a multitude of constituencies – forging unity out of diversity – unity that would eventually overwhelm the apartheid system.

At the core of the strategic building of a freedom majority was an historic alliance of the ANC with COSATU, the prime union sector of the predominantly black working class and the South African Communist Party, which since the 1ate 1920s had been a principled force in opposing the white supremacist regime. That alliance, under the leadership of Mandela and colleagues, most of whom, spent more than a quarter century in apartheid prisons, built a powerful international movement, advancing worldwide support for liberation through a massive campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions that played a critical role in bringing the racist regime to its knees.

In the fall of 1979, the Reverend Jesse Jackson asked legendary labor organizer, activist, writer and former international liaison for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council, Jack O’Dell to join him on a ten-day visit to South Africa coordinated by the ANC.

Jack O’Dell writes, “Everywhere we went, from Cape Town to Durban, from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, the Freedom Charter would come up … in our conversations.” Despite the ruthlessness of the regime, the Charter “united the freedom movement in all of its sectors to inspire hope and confidence in ultimate victory.”

The Freedom Charter remained in Jack O’Dell’s intellect, in his activist persona and in his heart. He noted that the Charter was promulgated in 1955, a year still enveloped in the oppressive force of the Cold War and institutional racism. Nineteen-Fifty-Five was also a time of ground breaking transformative events: the Bandung Conference in Indonesia that gave birth to the movement of non-aligned nations and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that spurred the mass movement against segregation and launched a new stage in the historic civil rights movement. For Jack, all three events were “seminal” in their own right.

Of greatest significance, those events took place in the darkest of times, confirming that even under the most oppressive circumstances, resistance stirs, visions of justice emerge and masses awaken to new possibilities for a better life and a better world.

Today, we are witnessing the emergence of right wing nationalism around the world and at home – exploiting anger and resentment over perceived abandonment by political power and fueled by racism, homophobia and misogyny. At the same time, we are witnessing an upsurge of resistance to that nationalism and its disastrous undermining of democratic rights. Millions of women, communities of color and working people are mobilizing to fight back in the streets and at the ballot box.

 (The stunning success in recent days of the British Labor Party led by Jeremy Corbin, is a striking confirmation of the powerful impact and enthusiastic public embrace of a political program unambiguously grounded in the fight against austerity and for social justice embodied in the Party’s forward-looking manifesto “For the Many, Not the Few.”)

In the present climate of crisis and opportunity, Jack O’Dell has brought forward the Democracy Charter in the spirit of the South African Freedom Charter. It aspires to be a starting point for a national discussion aimed a building a consensus vision and program for urgently needed change. The Democracy Charter seeks to end the fragmentation of progressive groups divided into s a multitude of disconnected single-issue organizations that sap the vitality of the movement.

The Democracy Charter affirms the inseparability of issues and the need for connection and cooperation among all progressive forces fighting on a variety of fronts. The Democracy Charter demolishes the artificial separation between so-called identity politics (such as issues of concern to women, to African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ, etc.) and class anchored issues of deep concern to working people. The Charter connects the inseparable concerns grounded in race, class and gender, demonstrating that women and all racial, ethnic and national groups are inseparable sectors of the working class. The Charter stresses “substantive democracy,” rejecting palliatives that sustain the status Quo.

The demands enumerated in the Charter require a deep and thoroughgoing advance of democratic people’s power expressed in a qualitative redistribution of the country’s resources. In key respects, the Democracy Charter is embedded in the country’s progressive history, particularly augmenting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Economic Bill of Rights” unfurled during World War II that called for a full employment economy, health care for all and an end to poverty.

Among the most salient points of the Democracy Charter are:

A commitment to full employment at a living wage with equal pay for equal work;

A farm economy based on family farming and cooperative enterprise;

An end to homelessness;

Education from early childhood to college as a public trust;

Single payer universal health care;

A strong and fully reliable Social Security system with undiminished integrity;

The right to be free of bigotry, hatred and violence as part of an irreversible commitment to human rights, including full recognition of women’s reproductive choice and the rights of the LGBTQ community.

A prison system accountable to the public that privileges rehabilitation over punishment;

Expanded public ownership and management of resources central to the health of the country’s economy;

A new foreign and military policy that is built on diplomacy, cooperation, the dismantling of over 700 military bases around the world, prohibition of weapons of mass destruction and a reduced military budget commensurate with the country’s domestic goals;

An unqualified and unimpeded right to vote and the right to have every vote counted;

Restoration, preservation and protection of our natural environment as a vital social inherence for present and future generations.

Inspired from across the Atlantic by the South African Freedom Charter and by the powerful vision of a better country and world, the Democracy Charter can be a vessel of unity among all who resist proto-fascism. It can be a foundation for beginning the long transformation process of returning the country’s material wealth and spiritual values to its people.  It can be the basis for building a “Congress of the People,” to facilitate the final draft of the Charter and lay the groundwork for a vast grass roots movement for social change.

The final words are Jack O’Dell’s:  “This is a great moment for all of us as we confidently take up the challenge to create a vision shared with the people all around us. … Recognizing and accepting this challenge is the key to the success of all our collective efforts to transform our nation into a peaceful, socially conscious democracy.”

In this spirit, we shall overcome!

Mark Solomon is the author of The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 (University Press of Mississippi). He is a past national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) and is currently an associate at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

2 comments: