THREE trucks left Pietermaritzburg in mid-June 1955 en route to the Congress of the People at Kliptown, Johannesburg. Some of their passengers were from the Indian community and they lacked the required permits to travel to the Transvaal. A.S. Chetty recalled that at Heidelberg in the middle of the night they bluffed their way past a police post by giving tips for the July horse race, making a musical din and pretending they were going to a wedding.

Out of the Congress came the Freedom Charter. There is a romantic version of its origins: it was put together from thousands of demands from ordinary people written on scraps of brown paper, collected by volunteers, and diligently collated. The cynics say it was written from scratch by a couple of Communist Party fellow travellers. You can take your pick.

Either way, many people within the struggle were proud to call themselves Charterists; but in recent years the document itself has disappeared from view. In some ways it is now an historical anachronism, just an object of nostalgic memory for ageing activists. So-called blue rights, those that define the relationship between individual and state, have pride of place in the admirable Constitution: the vote, freedoms of expression, publication, religion and movement, and the right to form trade unions are these days all taken for granted.

Many of the Charter’s ambitions were a product of their time and now seem utterly unrealistic. The nationalisation of banks, mining and industry, in spite of the daydreaming of today’s populist politicians, would lead to a flight of capital and disaster for South Africa. After all, this country does not even have sufficient managerial and technical resources to run an electricity supply company – or, apparently, a functional army.

It’s very easy to dissect the Charter clause by clause and declare that its contents are either redundant or already accomplished. But we need to look at it again in its entirety in the light of the sordid state of South African politics and national life. If you consider its broad ambition rather than its specific objectives, it is clear that it is a revolutionary document in the best sense of the term, especially in its humanism and optimism about the sort of country South Africa could have become.

Its best known and most eloquent section declares ‘for all our country and the world to know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white’. In present-day South Africa that is a highly uplifting statement, which could be used as a rallying cry for a wide range of just causes. The Charter goes on to point out that prosperity and freedom are impossible without brotherhood [sic] and equal opportunity; and talks of striving together in strength and courage to build a just society. These are deeply stirring sentiments.

Part of the Charter’s supposed redundancy is the challenge it poses to the careerists and opportunists who infest government and institutions at every level. Its affirmation of equal rights, and condemnation of race discrimination as a punishable crime, would outlaw many current employment and workplace practices. It clearly threatens those who think liberation means a simple reversal of all that went before and that it is now the turn of the new elite to plunder the country.

The Charter clearly envisaged a meritocracy in which ability is the first criterion for advancement. It is also strongly supportive of socio-economic, or red, rights like education and decent housing that have still to be fully addressed by the government. Patchy service delivery in these and other areas have played a major part in the township violence that is now commonplace. The strength and courage mentioned by the Freedom Charter were found in many people during the struggle for democracy. These qualities are needed again, in particular from political leaders, in order to preserve it.

The Charter is a fundamentally moral document in a country that many consider to be losing its sense of civic direction and duty. From time to time there are calls for national renewal: the more inspiring parts of the Charter are an excellent place to start. A.S. Chetty and his three thousand comrades at Kliptown bequeathed us something of which to be proud; and that could yet be of value at a time of acute national anxiety.

This article was first published in The Witness on 26 June 2008 and entitled ‘The birth of the Freedom Charter’.

Further reading: Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin, Thirty Years of the Freedom Charter (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1986).