The Congress of the People: Reflections of an Activist

60th Anniversary of the Freedom Charter

Six decades ago South Africa’s progressive Congress Movement rallied around the landmark launch of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown, Johannesburg. The writer, then aged 16, was fortunate enough to be there as a delegate to the Historic Congress of the People.

The weekend of June 25 and 26 1955 the “New Age”, the Progressive Liberation Movement weekly paper, had a headline “All Roads Lead to Kliptown”.

Kliptown was the venue chosen to launch the Freedom Charter. The date 26 June was specifically chosen to coincide with the 26 June Stay Away strike of 1950. This strike was called by the ANC alliance to protest the killing of workers during the May Day demonstrations and strikes organised by the Communist Party of South Africa to protest the suppression of Communism Act.

But the road to Kliptown began long before June 1955. It began with the adoption of the Programme of Action in 1949 by the ANC at its annual conference. This was a critical moment since it sought to change the method of struggle of the ANC and transform the organisation into a mass based militant movement. The ANC tested its strength in the successful strike of 1950. This enabled it to launch the Defiance Campaign in 1952, together with the South African Indian Congress.

Original Freedom Charter

Original Freedom Charter

The Defiance Campaign tested the popularity and militancy of the masses, and their support for the ANC. Over 8000 volunteers defied unjust laws and were sent to prison. The success of the campaign opened up a new and more militant phase in our struggle for liberation. This phase of the struggle required the movement to clearly outline the type of society it wished to create when taking power. Taking power meant the creation of a new democratic order which needed to be carefully defined in the context of the changing world. This was the era of anti-colonial struggles and the decolonisation of Asia and later Africa. It is for this reason that Professor Z. K. Matthews called for the drafting of the Freedom Charter to define our new democratic society.

In the tradition of the Congress Movement and its increased reliance on popular mobilisation, it was decided that the process leading to the Freedom Charter should be people-driven. This resulted in the establishment of an organ called the Congress of the People (COP). The COP sought to involve the broadest section of our society in the campaign for the Freedom Charter. For example, in the beginning, the Liberal Party of Alan Paton attended a meeting of the COP but later withdrew because they were uncomfortable with the mass-based character of the campaign.

Going From House to House

During that time I was an activist in the Greyville area of Durban and belonged to a branch of the Natal Indian Congress. We formed a COP committee in our area and we were tasked to canvass the people in the area so that they could express their views about the new South Africa. We were supplied with questionnaires and went from house to house asking questions and filling the forms with the people’s views. We were able to practically cover the whole Greyville area particularly what was called the Magazine Barracks where Indian municipal workers were housed. The people’s reaction was very encouraging and they could see that a free country was on the horizon. All the questionnaires and the views and demands expressed by the people were sent to the provincial office for processing and then to the head office in Johannesburg.

I was fortunate to be elected by my branch to be a delegate to the Congress of the People in Kliptown where the final draft of the Freedom Charter was to be adopted . As a person of Indian origin, I could not travel to the then Transvaal without acquiring a six week permit. Of course as an activist there was no way that I would have been able to get a permit. The Chairperson of our branch, Comrade Ismail Gangat was also driving to the COP. He was planning on travelling with a Coloured comrade called Middleton. Ismail suggested that I travel with him in the car and if we were stopped at the border, Comrade Middleton would say that I was his nephew, because coloureds did not require a permit for inter-provincial travel. Fortunately for us we were not stopped at the border.

Kliptown was buzzing with excitement and expectation. Delegates poured in to an open ground which was fenced to accommodate over 3000 people. We sang freedom songs and danced at the conference. The occasion was also marked by awarding the Order of Isandlwana to Chief Albert Luthuli, Dr. Yusuf Dadoo and Father Trevor Huddleston.

The clauses of the Freedom Charter were read out and people commented on them. On the second day the police raided the conference and circled the venue. Names and documents of each delegate were taken by the police and put into a large envelope with their name on it. Since I had no permit, a comrade gave me a false address in the Indian area of Johannesburg. The police kept asking me for a Transvaal document to prove that I was a Transvaaler. I told him that I did not bring my documents with me. Fortunately I was allowed to leave, and I travelled safely back to Durban.

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The Congress Alliance

The Congress Alliance featured prominently in the campaign and at the Congress of the People. The symbol of the Congress of the People was a wheel with four spokes which symbolises the four members of the alliance – i.e. the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Congress, the Congress of Democrats and the South African Congress of Trade Unions. The centre of the wheel represented the ANC which symbolises the leader of the Congress Alliance. Even at the Congress of the People in Kliptown, the chairpersons were from different components of the alliance.

The Freedom Charter was subsequently adopted by all the organisations that constituted the Congress Alliance at their respective conferences. A year later we were officially informed that the Congress of the People has been disbanded. On making inquiries we were told that they did not want a repetition of what happened at the All-African Convention in the 1930s, which transformed itself into a political organisation.

The Congress of the People and the adoption of the Freedom Charter was a historic event because for the first time in South African history, people of all national groups and all classes expressed their views on what a free democratic South Africa should look like. The word ‘people’ in the Charter also reflected the wide section of our countrymen and women who were consulted. These included workers and peasants, traders and housewives, intellectuals and students, mineworkers to factory labourers to domestic workers, people of all religious groups, women, youth, the elderly – all made their demands known to the Congress of the People.

The people rejected all forms of racism and said that South Africa belonged to all who lived in it. Freedom and democratic values expressed in 1955 shaped the strategic outlook and vision of the ANC and defined its non-racial struggle. It was this commitment by the ANC that made our movement recognised and supported by people – both in the country and all over the world. Our new democracy and our current Constitution reflect the views of the delegates of the 1955 Congress of the People and the adoption of the Freedom Charter.

The Charter ends with these words: “THESE FREEDOMS WE WILL FIGHT FOR, SIDE BY SIDE, THROUGHOUT OUR LIVES, UNTIL WE HAVE WON OUR LIBERTY”. These words are relevant today as they were 60 years ago. The struggle to create a better life for all our people, as envisioned in the Freedom Charter, still continues to this day.

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