The struggle is over, yet it continues

The Freedom Charter, signed in Kliptown in 1955, has given birth to free debate and labour rights. (Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

The Freedom Charter, signed in Kliptown in 1955, has given birth to free debate and labour rights. (Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

In the small museum tucked away on a largely forgotten corner of Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, Soweto, a book exhorts visitors’ opinions on how the clauses of the Freedom Charter, created there nearly six decades ago, still resonate today.

The first comment says they don’t.

“I think they are wrong and need to be changed for the better[ment] of everybody and for the future.” The second comment thanks Nelson Mandela for freeing South Africa, with no reference to the charter.

The third is angry.

“We fought for our country and have won, but our leaders today have failed us. Because the Freedom Charter doesn’t apply, the promises made have been broken. Instead the rich get richer and the poor, poorer … The truth hurts, but the black government has sold us [out].”

There are many such angry comments scattered through visitors’ books dating from 2007, in among sincere pledges from pupils to move the struggle forward, calls for the legalisation of dagga and prostitution, and warnings that freedom and rape are incompatible.

Nelson “Bro” Mandela
Then the books degenerate into the kind of writing not entirely unusual for poorly supervised teenagers, the kind where Nelson Mandela is addressed as “bro”.

The evident disaffection does not bother Leon Levy. “I’m pleased that people make those comments,” he said in an interview this week.

“Perhaps they need to be reminded too that if they said ‘I don’t like this’ and ‘I don’t like that’ and criticised the government before 1990, they would have been in jail. Now we take their words seriously.”

At 85 years old, Levy still works at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, where the tyre of protecting workers’ rights hits the tarmac of reality. But in June 1955 he was the leader of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu), the predecessor to Cosatu, and was taking risks to organise the creation of the Freedom Charter.

“We went to factories and to farms; we organised meetings all over the place, hoping not to be arrested for breaking our bans,” he says of the run-up to the Congress of the People in Kliptown. “The police believed treasonable conspiracy was being discussed and advocated.”

Treason triallist
Levy, in part for his signature on the Freedom Charter, became a treason triallist and was detained without trial before going into exile. Today, schoolchildren sign their names to sentiments harsher than those that saw him confined and pursued – “Jacob Zuma is unfit to lead”, for example – and think nothing of it. That, to him, is a victory.

Having seen the evolution and dissolution of apartheid both petty and grand, however, Levy has a very different angle to that of the youth who demand more, and faster.

The people govern, even if there are questions over the effectiveness of the government. National groups have equal rights, even if society is not equal. Debate continues on how all should share in the country’s wealth and own the land, but the principle that they should has almost universal consensus. The doors of learning and culture are open, if perhaps not open wide enough. There are houses, security and comfort, if not enough.

Among the clauses of the charter, it is the call for work and security that strikes Levy as South Africa’s greatest achievement. That is even after an election in which unemployment was the primary point of campaigning, even after South Africa’s longest-running strike. It is all a matter of perspective, he says.

“You don’t have people going on strike because they’ve been summarily dismissed. In days gone by, employers could say: ‘Pack your things and go,’ and the workers walked out; the whole factory walked out.”

Strikes may turn violent and workers may demand enough money to make up for the shortfalls in social services from the government, but workers are not arguing for their right to form trade unions any more. That struggle is won.

A vibrant history left to molder

The tourists who make it past the more popular Vilakazi Street in Orlando West and as far as Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown tend not to be overly generous, says Thabang Mosai. On a good day he earns around R100 in tips for playing the national anthem on his recorder in the echoing chamber that is the Freedom Charter Monument.

Other than a bump in visitors during the 2010 World Cup, that’s the way it has been for years.

“Right now it’s quiet. It is mostly quiet.”

Some of the tourists, especially the foreign ones, spend a little more money at the tables of standard curios and bric-a-brac just outside, but not many. What was once a formal curio store in one of the buildings lining the square is now a shop front for wreaths and memorial stones. Most of the traders doing business on the square, from blankets or folding tables, sell vegetables by the box or cut-price cosmetics.

June 25, the anniversary of the signing of the Freedom Charter in 1955, was originally intended to be a holiday, to emphasise the continuing importance of the document.

Amid a surfeit of holidays, though, those plans were abandoned. Instead, Walter Sisulu Square was built as a more geographic reminder of the charter.

Some 10 years after the building of the square, many of the trading spaces are empty. The plaster of the monument at the centre of the square clings to the walls only through grim determination.

Few come, and those who do too often leave disappointed.

“They want to hear the stories of Nelson Mandela,” says Mosai of the dribbles of tourists that do visit.

“We try to tell them about the charter, and they say: ‘Is there a picture of Mandela where we can take a photo?’”

The Freedom Charter

A synthesis of a thousand pieces of paper – among them cardboard and toilet paper – on which people wrote their hopes and ambitions for South Africa, the Freedom Charter captured a picture of equality and nonracism that would guide the liberation struggle and form the core of the Constitution.

It also became a blueprint to measure the success or failure of the democratic government.

The core tenets of the 1955 Freedom Charter are:

  • The People Shall Govern!
  • All National Groups Shall have Equal Rights!
  • The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth!
  • The Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who Work It!
  • All Shall be Equal Before the Law!
  • All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights!
  • There Shall be Work and Security!
  • The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!
  • There Shall be Houses, Security and Comfort!
  • There Shall be Peace and Friendship!
Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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