5. The 1955 Freedom Charter

The campaign for the Freedom Charter

In 1954, the Congress Alliance began to plan the Congress of the People, a countrywide campaign intended to encourage ordinary South Africans to submit their ideas for ‘the good life that they seek for themselves and their children’. Fifty thousand enthusiastic volunteers embarked on a series of meetings, door-to-door canvassing and extensive pamphleteering. Thousands of submissions from all over the country were submitted ‘on sheets torn from school exercise books, on little dog-eared scraps of paper, on slips torn from COP (Congress of the People) leaflets’. These were sorted by a receiving committee and used in drawing up the Freedom Charter. 

The notion of a charter was first suggested at the annual convention of the African National Congress in August 1953. Prof Z K Mathews formally suggested convening a Congress of the People (COP) to draw up the Freedom Charter. The idea was adopted by the allies of the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured People’s Organisation and the South African Congress of Democrats. The Congress of the People was not a single event but a series of campaigns and rallies, huge and small, held in houses, flats, factories, kraals, on farms and in the open. The National Action Council enlisted volunteers to publicise the COP, educate the people, note their grievances and embark on a ‘million signatures campaign’. 

The first draft of the Charter emerged just two days before the Kliptown meeting from a committee of the National Action Council of the COP that included COD activists such as Joe Slovo, Piet Beyleveld, Lionel Bernstein and Rica Hodgson. Sources indicate that Beata Lipman‚ wrote out the original and presumably the final version of the 1955 Freedom Charter. It was presented on the 25th and 26th June 1955 at the Congress of the People that was convened in Kliptown near Johannesburg and represented a crucial historical moment in establishing a new order based on the will of the people. It brought together 2 844 delegates from all over the country. Ben Turok recounts how the meeting ended:

On Sunday afternoon at about 3 o’clock, a posse of police arrived with stun guns … they marched into the enclosure … and told us to shut down the meeting. I thought there was going to be a riot because people were very angry. The chair of the meeting was smart enough to say, ‘Let’s sing,’ and so we sang a song ‘Unzima lomthwalo buyisa amadoda’ and then he said, ‘Now I put to you that we adopt the Freedom Charter,’ and everybody said, ‘Fine’ and shouted ‘Freedom in our Lifetime’. 

As we left the police searched everybody and took everybody’s name and address and that took hours. The following week, all the employers were visited by the police and those people who had their names taken were sacked.

Ben Turok

Then Anti-apartheid activist and economics professor

The moment when police surrounded us with heavily armed men on horseback and a large squad of paramilitary officers on foot carrying semi-automatic weapons was just after we had read out and adopted by acclamation the eighth section of the Charter declaring that ‘the doors of learning and culture shall be opened’, enshrining the right to education. And after a quick huddle, the speakers on the platform decide to race through the ninth section under the heading ‘There shall be housing, security and comfort’, which expressly included the rights to housing, health and food. 

We roared our approval to it as we did to the hastily declared tenth section dealing with ‘peace and international relations’. The Congress of the People, as we termed the gathering, might have had no formal status, and was in fact to become the basis for charging 156 of our leaders with treason; but we were giving our alternative vision of South Africa its own form of extra-legal popular legality, and managed to get through the last words just as the police closed in on us. And from then on social and economic rights were sealed into the web of the popular imagination.

Albie Sachs

Then anti-apartheid activist and lawyer


Audio Visual

President Mandela gives his State of the Nation address in Parliament. Mandela ends his address with the words, “Let us all get down to work”.

“We must construct that people-centred society of freedom in such a manner that it guarantees the political and the human rights of all our citizens.”– President Mandela, extract from State of the Nation Address, 24 May 1994

President Nelson Mandela announces his cabinet. It includes members of the African National Congress, National Party and Inkatha Freedom Party.

“There was pride in serving in the first democratic government in South Africa, and then the additional pride of serving under the iconic leadership of Nelson Mandela … [He] represented the hopes of not just our country, but of oppressed, marginalised and the poor in the world.”– Jay Naidoo, then Minister of RDP housing
“We place our vision of a new constitutional order for South Africa on the table not as conquerors, prescribing to the conquered. We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.”– President Nelson Mandela, 10 May 1994