The opening words of the Freedom Charter became widely known in South Africa’s political discourse: “We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” The Charter – the result of more than a year of political discussion throughout the country – was adopted by 3000 delegates at the Congress of the People in Kliptown near Johannesburg on June 26, 1955. The assembled group voted on each clause as police took pictures and later confiscated many materials.
The initiative for the Freedom Charter came from a multi-racial coalition of organizations, including the African National Congress (ANC), Congress of Democrats, Indian National Congress, and South African Coloured People’s Congress. The Charter came to represent ANC policies over the next four decades. The document formulated not only basic demands for human and political rights that had been included in previous petitions and deputations, it also spelled out the kind of society that was envisioned to replace apartheid, including ideals such as sharing the wealth of the country and adequate housing, education, and healthcare for all.
The apartheid government regarded the Freedom Charter as communist, and, five months later, it charged 156 organizers of the Congress of the People with high treason. Thirty of these leaders endured a four-and-a-half-year Treason Trial, which ended in their acquittal. The Freedom Charter was aimed at building a united movement with a common vision. In the 1980s, many organizations including the United Democratic Front endorsed the document and its nonracial, democratic ideals.
For more information about the Freedom Charter, see Unit 4.