Steven Friedman: Taking sides on the charter

by Mandla Seleoane and Ben Mokoena (Ears)

Political documents, like politicians, do not serve us best when they are worshipped rather than critically analysed.

A topical example is the Freedom Charter, which celebrated its 60th birthday in June. Adopted at the Congress of the People in Kliptown, it was the ANC and its allies’ core statement of belief for decades – the ANC has declared 2015 the year of the charter. Its adherents insist it distilled the hopes and desires of South Africans who submitted their aspirations to ANC volunteers – its opponents say it was written by a few white left-wingers.

Its anniversary has inspired several publications this year. The supportive view is expressed in a re-publication of Gauteng Transport MEC Ismail Vadi’s The Congress of the People and Freedom Charter: A People’s History. A view from the left, by activist and writer Dale McKinley, has been published as 60 Years of the Freedom Charter – NO Cause to Celebrate for the Working Class. The charter is also the subject of academic analysis in this reviewer’s Race, Class and Power.

Though Vadi is much less critical than McKinley, both see the charter in a relatively benign light. This reflects a general view among supporters of nonracial democracy – it is far more common to hear the lament that the government has failed to adhere to the charter than a serious, accessible critique of the document – despite the fact that it was rejected by the Pan-Africanist Congress and Black Consciousness thinkers and was often used by ANC loyalists to attack rival strains of thought.

Fortunately, another book on the charter, Reflections on the Freedom Charter by Mandla Seleoane and Ben Mokoena, fills this gap. Seleoane, a trade unionist, activist and intellectual, honed his thinking in the Black Consciousness Movement; Mokoena, the first ANC mayor of Middelburg, Mpumalanga, is now an articulate critic of the governing party. Their book is not only outside the mainstream because of its content. It is published by a small company established by Seleoane and is not available from bookshops – Seleoane says they refuse to stock it.

If the stores are ignoring the book because they expect rhetoric masquerading as analysis, they should open its covers. They will find a volume that does take sides – its purpose is to knock the charter off its pedestal by showing that it is the product of a particular view at a particular time, which, at the least, needs revision. But they will also find one that is closely argued.

There is a division of labour in the individually authored chapters – Seleoane’s task is to challenge the charter’s philosophical basis, Mokoena’s to analyse its usefulness for policy. Both criticise not only much of the charter but also the ANC’s implementation of those sections they believe deserve support. They provide an important corrective to the halo that often surrounds the charter.

Beating people on the head
The motive for their critique is expressed in Seleoane’s wry observation that, “although the ANC does not seem to conduct its affairs strictly in accordance with the document, it does every now and then beat people on the head with it”.

As a critic whose head has been (metaphorically) beaten during battles between ANC and Black Consciousness supporters, he believes it necessary “to understand what exactly the organisation is beating our heads with, and to what end”.

A key target is the charter’s claim that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”. This, he points out, was the prime reason the PAC broke with the ANC. Its meaning, he argues, is “that the robber and the robbed are equal owners of the loot”.

This critique is frequently misread as a claim that whites have no place here – but, as Seleoane shows, it is about the right of whites to hold on to what they gained from apartheid.

This is not his only target – others include the charter’s claim to speak for all South Africans and understanding of “race”. While the charter is often seen as a nonracial alternative to Africanism and Black Consciousness, Seleoane criticises it for taking “race” at face value: he argues that the concept was foisted on Africans by Europeans but is kept alive by the charter.

His critique offers many other thought-provoking insights into the reasoning behind the charter and the way in which it is (or is not) applied today.

Out of touch with reality
Mokoena’s policy analysis seeks to show that the charter is out of touch with contemporary reality. He argues that it does advocate nationalisation, despite ANC protestations to the contrary – and that this is not only not feasible but prompts contortions in the ANC, which expects investors to take seriously what it says to them, not what the charter says.

He offers a sustained critique of the contradictions and impracticalities that in his view pervade the sections on land, labour and education. He also offers many insights that shed light on current issues.

There is far more in this book: Seleoane and Mokoena have much of value to contribute to current debates. Which is why the bookstores ought to carry it and we should all make the effort to read it.

Steven Friedman will be on the M&G Literary Festival panel “South Africa at a fork in the road”, with Louis Picard, Rehana Rossouw and John Saul, chaired by Adam Habib, on Saturday August 1 at 1.30pm

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