1953 Professor Z.K. Matthews, one of the leaders of the ANC, went overseas. When he visited other countries, he was asked the same question over and over again. What kind of country did most people in South Africa want? Professor Matthews could say that most people hated apartheid. But he could not answer the question.
When he came back to South Africa, he had an idea. There should be a big meeting to decide what people really wanted. And so on the 25th and 26th June, thousands of people all over South Africa came together in Kliptown. The meeting was called the Congress of the People.
The people came together to tell the world what they wanted. They put all their demands together onto one piece of paper. And they called it the Freedom Charter.
The Freedom Charter is now 30 years old. But for many, many people, the Freedom Charter is still very much alive. The Freedom Charter still tells the world what they want. Their demands are still the same.
A new book called “Thirty Years of the Freedom Charter” is coming out soon. In the book, people. talk about the Freedom Charter. These people were around at the time. Let us listen to what a few of these people say. The story begins with the volunteers – the young people who went to every corner of the country to collect demands from people.
COLLECTING THE DEMANDS
Martin Ramokgadi: We wanted to spread the message of the Freedom Charter all over, towns and countryside. We wanted it to become a strong movement. I was a volunteer. I collected demands from the towns: Benoni, Springs, Krugersdorp, Sophiatown, Sharpeville. A volunteer had to be simple and sincere. We had to listen. We wanted people to tell us.
A.S. Chetty: We were a group of very hard working chaps here in Pietermaritzburg. We’d get up very early in the morning. We didn’t eat breakfast or anything of the sort. Wear your khaki uniform and charge along. Then come three or four o’clock in the afternoon, we would meet and talk about what we had done.
Mrs Sibanda: I was one of the people who collected the demands in Cradock. The people spoke about their problems and we wrote them down. One of the problems was water. We didn’t have taps in the location, we had to walk to town to fetch water. It would take almost the whole day.
Another problem was going to fetch wood. We’d be stopped. They would take the wood to the police station and we would be fined for that. Also our houses were made of zinc and we had no money for materials to build houses. Also there were no toilets.
Wilson Fanti: We asked the people in Stutterheim and from my home in Mgwali for their views. Even people on the farms were asked. One of the demands was land. These people believe in land for their livestock. Because the land had been taken away from them, the people could not feed themselves as before. So the first question was the land.
Billy Nair: While the magazine was at the printers, Billy Nair was detained. If we tell you anything that he said, we will be breaking the law.
Dorothy Nyembe: In Cato Manor I was calling a meeting every Wednesday. The audience would raise their hands. We would write down the demands, all the demands. Also we went house to house. I would say: “Here I am. I come from the ANC office. I am the voice of Chief Luthuli.”
Amy Thornton: Blouvlei was a squatter camp, one long sand dune up and down. I remember the main complaint was passes, passes, always passes. Houses, jobs, those issues also came up.
A.S. Chetty: There was one fellow, I remember. I went on explaining the Freedom Charter. I went on and on – and in the end the man says: ‘ Ay man, how much donation do you want?’ I told him I was not asking for a donation but I was explaining the Freedom Charter. And he says: ‘Ay, you talking so long. Here you are man, take five shillings and go!’
TRAVELLING TO KLIPTOWN
As the weekend of the Congress of the People came closer, people were chosen to go and speak for others in Kliptown. These people were called delegates.
Thousands of delegates and their friends travelled great distances to Kliptown. But many people had problems along the way. On Friday 24th June, the police were out in full force.
A.S. Chetty: We left Pietermaritzburg in very good moods. We took a lot of musical instruments. We sang songs on the way, as far as Heidelburg, our first stop.
At Heidelburg you’ve got to show your permits if you’re an Indian, to get into the Transvaal. About five of us didn’t have permits. Okay. We were marked fellows and we couldn’t get permits. When we got to the border post, we decided to work a plan now.
So we started making a hell of a noise with the musical instruments. We couldn’t, of course, sing freedom songs or anything of the sort. But we started making a hell of a clanging noise, you see. And the cops came out and said: ‘What’s going on here?’
We had one fellow who was very funny, you know, he was a hell of a nice chap. The fellow says: ‘Aw, hello baas. How are you baas? The cop says:
‘What do you want?’ ‘No baas, we want to go to Johannesburg.’ ‘Where’s your permits?’ ‘Okay baas, we’ll give you permits now. Don’t worry.”
So the fellow walked into the police station itself. The lorries were parked outside, you see. Then this fellow says: “Hey, July Handicap coming up very soon, hey.”
Then the cop says: “Yes. Got any tips?” fellow says: “Definitely, I give you the tips, don’t worry. Try this horse, definite winner. Try that horse, number two winner.”
He gave him the whole lot. The cop was so dumb he took down the names of the horses that guy gave him. Meanwhile, it’s a full card, you see. All this was to play for time – to give us a chance to get on the cop’s nerves.
Meantime, we’re busy making a noise outside. So the cop says: “Okay, don’t make a noise, hey. All these people are sleeping here in Heidelburg. You mustn’t make a noise. Please, you must go.” We managed to get all three trucks through.
A SEA OF HEADS
The Congress of the People started after lunch, on Saturday the 25th June. Once again, the police were there in full force.
Ellen Lambert: I woke up at four o’clock that morning. We were filled with excitement. Do you know what I wore that day? I wore khaki pants and a black, green and gold sweater. In those days very few girls wore pants.
AS. Chetty: The crowds were coming in. We got there about 11 o’clock. The meeting itself was going to start at three o’clock, half past two, something like that. And the crowds were pouring in, and pouring in. God, I tell you, by the time we were ready at three o’clock it was just a sea of heads.
You know, we couldn’t understand where these people were coming from. Busloads. Lorry loads. Motor cars. People walking by foot. They were coming from everywhere.
Elliot Tshabangu: We were seated there, all of us. Two bricks, two bricks and a long plank. It went on the whole day. Speaker after speaker. It was my first time to see so many people in one place. All the speakers were saying different words, but meaning the same thing.
Solly Esakjee: It was a beautiful day. It was a perfect day. I would say that God wanted this day, just to come. And then just before the police raided the place, there was a helluva big sandstorm.
Dorothy Nyembe: Chief Luthuli had sent a letter to the South African government to send delegates. Late in the afternoon on Sunday, when we we looked around, we saw 300 police with their horses. The people said: the government had now sent it’s delegates!
A.S. Chetty: And I tell you the crowd was just getting angry. They were ready to attack the cops and lose their lives in that place. Next thing Ida Mtwana gets onto the platform and said: “Comrades, this is the hour. Please do not do a thing. Let’s start singing.” And she started singing. And this big cop couldn’t do a thing.
Philip Kgasago: As we left on our way out, we were searched. Every document was taken from us. They were calling us one by one taking all, everything. All we had in our pockets, and everything. Putting them in big envelopes. Writing where you stay, addresses.
A.S. Chetty: Leave your docket here, out you go. Leave your docket here, out you go. When a cop starts writing, you know how long it takes. It finished after eight that night for the ones at the end.
THE FREEDOM CHARTER
And so the work was done. The Freedom Charter was there for all to see.
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
The main demands 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 OF CULTURE SHALL BE OPENED!
THERE SHALL BE HOUSES, SECURITY AND COMFORT!
THERE SHALL BE PEACE AND FRIENDSHIP!
Let all who love their people and their country now say, as we say here:
“THESE FREEDOMS WE WILL FIGHT FOR, SIDE BY SIDE, THROUGHOUT OUR LIVES, UNTIL WE HAVE WON OUR LIBERTY.”
SPREADING THE GOSPEL
Elliot Tshabangu: From Kliptown it was our duty to tell people what we decided at Kliptown. I entered each and every house in my area. I spread that gospel.
Solly Esakjee: There were report back meetings in every area. We had report back meetings, big and small, on sport fields, homes, halls.
Martin Ramokgadi: It was a most funny thing. When we read the Freedom Charter to the branches they were surprised. For example, when the branch in Alexandra heard the demand about housing and security, they thought their very own demand was put into the Freedom Charter. When they heard that everybody from different areas had brought this demand, they were definitely surprised.
Francis Baard: I remember one time after that, we were in Cape Town, talking to some people about the Freedom Charter. One of the girls who was with me there was carrying her Freedom Charter with her, and there comes the security. They came up to her ………………….
Eileen van der Vindt: And so the girl swallowed the Freedom Charter, quick. But the newspaper snapped a photo. And there she was, next Sunday, front page of the Golden City Post having just chewed the Charter.
MANY YEARS LATER
While the magazine was at the printers, Christmas Tinto was detained. If we tell you anything that he said, we will be breaking the law.
This story comes from a new book called “Thirty Years of the Freedom Charter”. The book is coming out soon. If you want to find out more about this book, write to RAVAN PRESS, P.O. Box 31134, Braamfontein, 2017.
There is also another new book on the Freedom Charter. It is called “Until We Have Won Our Liberty”. If you want it, send R3.00 to: CRIC, 9 De Korte Street, Braamfontein, 2001