South Africa’s Freedom Charter at 50


Bafana Mhlanga was only 11, but he remembers the excitement and
the promises of the new South Africa born after the 1994 fall of
apartheid. Now, as he looks around his neighborhood, he is furious
with the African National Congress (ANC) government. They have returned
to Kliptown, Soweto to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a founding
document of the anti-apartheid struggle, the Freedom Charter. But
Josh and his family still live in poverty in this half-century-old
black community of corrugated metal shacks without secure access
to water or electricity. “They say it’s a Freedom Charter,
but to us it is a Freedom Cheater,” says Mhlanga. “It
has changed nothing in Kliptown.” 

international image of South Africa is of a nation transformed.
With a black-led government, one of the most progressive constitutions
in the world, and a burgeoning black bourgeoisie, South Africa is
considered by many to be an icon of social and economic success.
South Africa has one of the highest Gross Domestic Products per
person on the continent, accounts for 35 percent of the entire economy
of Sub-Saharan Africa, and has over 25,000 black millionaires. 

the same time, South Africa is an example of the failures of the
neoliberal economic model. It has perhaps the world’s most
unequal economy. While the millionaires and the richest 10 percent
account for almost half of the nation’s consumption, nearly
a quarter of the population still lives on less than $2 a day. Government
figures suggest a quarter of all South Africans are unemployed.
In urban black areas like Soweto well over half of residents are

some, this other side to South Africa comes from the limits of how
quickly change can happen. But many in South Africa’s emerging
social movements suggest that the position of South Africa’s
poor and working class people is a predictable outcome of the ANC
government’s neoliberal economic policies, reflecting a failure
of the Freedom Charter. 

to Dennis Brutus, an activist and poet who was part of drafting
the Freedom Charter, “For a privileged segment both, Black
and white, things have gone very well under the Charter. But for
the mass of people, if you look around Kliptown, you see the decay,
the poverty, the lack of housing, the beggars in the street.” 

criticism is not the slowness of delivery on the Charter,”
says Brutus. “I’m saying the ANC has changed direction.
At the time of the Freedom Charter it was committed to serving the
people, now it is committed to serving the corporations.” It
is a criticism that mirrors a much broader debate about the path
of social change and development in South Africa and globally. 

Freedom Charter 


in 1954 in Kliptown and unveiled a year later, the Freedom Charter
was the product of a coalition Congress of groups which were each
to represent a different “race” in South Africa including
African, Colored, Indian, and progressive whites. Taken up in the
1980s by the United Democratic Front (UDF), an internal group that
included the then-banned ANC, the Charter was used as an organizing
tool that some saw as radical. 

the Charter demands that: “The national wealth of our country,
the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people;
the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry
shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole;
all other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being
of the people.” 

many argued at the time that the “united front” approach
of the Charter failed to address the economic change that was really
necessary to undo the economic disenfranchisement of poor South
Africans. They point, for example, to the effort by those writing
the Charter to include the National Party—the creators of the
apartheid system—as evidence that the Charter was meant to
appease rather than create deeper change. Like many political documents,
the Charter is largely ambiguous. For example, while it seems to
call for nationalization of industry at points, in the same breath
it demands free markets, saying, “All people shall have equal
rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture, and to enter
all trades…” 

Lekalakala, an organizer with Jubilee South Africa, was involved
in left student and labor groups in the 1980s that saw the Freedom
Charter as a document designed for co-optation. “I see the
Freedom Charter as the document that has led us to the neoliberal
environment we are in today,” says Lekalakala. “It was
a sellout document because it did nothing to put Africans as the
owners of South Africa.” 

the time, Lekalakala and other activists who questioned the Freedom
Charter were attacked by the ANC-aligned Congress movement. People
were denounced, their houses were burned, and people were killed
by being “neck- laced” (burning tires hung around the
neck). Lekalakala sees parallels to today. “The Charter represented
intolerance in the past and today the social movements that are
rising up and saying ‘Lets have basic services like electricity’
or ‘Lets have land’ are being repressed.” 

Charter Today 


ANC government has celebrated the Charter as a foundation of those
transformations that have taken place since 1994. “The people
shall govern,” says the Charter and South Africa has seen the
dismantling of legal segregation, the emergence of political freedoms,
and the introduction of universal suffrage. Just this year, after
failing to gain electoral victory in the multi-racial electorate,
the successor to the National Party folded into the ANC. 

to visit Kliptown now is to see what has not been the priority of
the “unity” government. As the ANC was holding massive
public celebrations and the parliament was symbolically “sitting”
in Kliptown for a day, a coalition of activist groups from poor
black communities held a “people’s inspection.” They
brought journalists and activists through the neighborhood to show
them the absence of a sewage system, the mud tracks that still pass
for streets, and the paraffin people still use for light. They talked
about the deaths—from communicable diseases because of the
lack of water, from respiratory disease because people must heat
with coal and wood, and from the violence that many argue is the
predictable result of a community where unemployment and under-
education are the norm. 

are still using the buckets to relieve ourselves,” said Mhlanga,
a 22-year-old resident of Kliptown. “You don’t have light.
You can’t study. When it is 6:00 PM, you have to be in the
house or else you are risking your life. Every single day, every
single night you hear gunshots. We don’t have streets, it’s
still gravel. If you buy shoes today, after two months they are
gone and you have to buy other shoes. It’s like we are still
living in that apartheid era where they say ‘They are blacks,
they must live there, and nobody must take care of them.’” 

a second slap in the face to those ignored for so long, the government
is building some houses a short distance away, but under substandard
conditions. “The white apartheid government built small four-room
houses and the ANC was quick to say that they were inadequate for
people to have good lives,” says Virginia Magwaza of the Anti-Privatization
Forum. Standing in front of a dense row of tiny houses, she describes
the houses the ANC government is building: “One room, one window,
one door, a toilet, and a basin, that’s it. The toilet plumbing
is connected to the sink, so when the toilet blocks the sewage comes
up into the kitchen.” 

is not the only community where the ANC’s promises of a “better
life for all” have not been fulfilled. Under the original Reconstruction
and Development Program (RDP) promised by the ANC during the 1994
elections, basic services like water and electricity, along with
housing and land redistribution, topped the list of priorities.
After democratization the country was flooded with “advisors”
from the World Bank and Washington consulting firms. 

is a clear point of transition,” says Brutus. “They abandoned
the RDP in 1996. It was thrown out the window and they adopted another
doctrine called GEAR [Growth, Employment and Redistribution] all
of which is focused on keeping the corporations happy at the expense
of the people. The people become the victims of a new ideology,
which is aimed at satisfying the World Bank, IMF, WTO. People like
[Finance Minister] Trevor Manuel actually serve in the offices of
the World Bank and the IMF. They’re supposed to be working
for the people of South Africa, but instead they are more interested
in serving corporate interests.” 

result has been the privatization of basic services, from electricity
and water to education and healthcare, and a dramatic failure to
redistribute land and wealth. In 1994, for example, 87 percent of
South African land was in the hands of the 12 percent white minority.
When the ANC came to power in 1994, the government promised that
30 percent of commercial farmland would be in the hands of blacks
within 10 years. In reality just 3.3 percent was transferred through
the “willing-buyer, willing-seller” program pushed by
the World Bank. 



those voicing their displeasure at the “freedom” they
have gained are the affiliated community groups of the Anti-Privatization
Forum. For several years people in poor communities like Soweto
and Orange Farm have been organizing and fighting cut-offs of electric
service to poor residents who cannot afford to pay the rates demanded
by the commercialized electricity company. 

recently, the struggle has been over water and the contracting of
Johannesburg’s water management to a subsidiary of the French
water conglomerate Suez. The poorest residents use only a tiny fraction
of Johannesburg’s water, but have seen a 30 percent increase
in water prices while the industries and suburbanites using most
of the water have seen only an 8 to 12 percent increase. Of even
bigger concern is how Suez has also solved the “problem”
of overdue/unpaid water bills in poor communities by installing
pre-paid water meters. Besides hiking the price to small consumers
even further, these meters mean that those who run out of money
for water units may be too poor to do things like bathe, care for
the sick, or put out a house fire (as in one Soweto case where children
died). In a striking example of the affects of the lack of water,
not long after Suez took over Johannesburg’s water supply,
an outbreak of cholera in the township of Alexandra affected thousands
of poor families and required drastic government intervention.

Water says that there is a culture of non-payment, but the reason
people don’t pay is because they cannot afford it; people are
not working,” says Jabu Molobela, a member of the Phiri Concerned
Residents Committee, an APF affiliate. “With pre-paid meters
people won’t owe anything to the company, it’s true, but
they won’t have water either.” 

government points to its provision of 6 kiloliters of free water
(about 1,500 gallons) per household, per month. But for the average
household of 8 people this provides each person with about a bucket
of water (25 liters) daily— the bare minimum for basic survival,
according to the World Health Organization, which says 100 liters
is needed for good health. Those with larger families, or who perhaps
need more water to care for one of the 370,000 people who die each
year of AIDS, must cough up more money or go without. 

are fighting back and implementing the Freedom Charter in their
own ways. For years members of the APF have combined public protest
and legal challenges with direct action through reconnecting themselves
to the electricity grid in “Operation Khanyisa” (“Light-Up”).
Faced with new prepaid water meters, poor township residents have
mounted Operation Vulamanzi (Water for All). In an act of direct
defiance to the government and Suez, residents have been destroying
pre-paid water meters and bypassing privatized “control measures”
to re-route the water piping and “decommodify” this most
basic of resources. 

are resisting the installation of pre-paid water and reconnecting
the community because no one can survive without water,” says
Molo- bela. “They say it’s illegal, but we say it’s
illegal for them to disconnect water. Each and every human being
has a right to sufficient and clean water. We want it to be managed
by the public and not by private companies because they are not
going to deliver.” 

in the new South Africa the right of all to “trade where they
choose” under the Freedom Charter seems to have trumped the
promise that “slums shall be demolished and new suburbs built
where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, crèches,
and social centers.” 

says Makoma Lekalakala, “I think the fact that the government
is pulling the Freedom Charter out of the archives is an indication
that the social movements are having an effect against the neo-
liberal program that the government in power is pursuing.” 

the ANC declares to the world this year the success of the Freedom
Charter, many South Africans are asking themselves whether perhaps
they should be able to expect more when it comes to freedom.

Matthew M. Kavanagh
is an activist and educator working with several social movement organizations
in Johannesburg and Soweto, South Africa.