Brian Bunting. Moses Kotane, South African Revolutionary

13. The Freedom Charter

Kotane arrived back in South Africa to fin the Freedom Charter adopted by the Congress of the People and a campaign already under way to collect one million signatures for it. The more chauvinistic and backward elements in Congress, however, were not happy about the Charter. The Transvaal ANC conference in November 1955 had saluted COP, endorsed the Freedom Charter and pledged to collect its full quota of signatures for it. The other Congress organisations welcomed it. But the annual conference of the ANC held in Bloemfontein in December and attended by 307 delegates from 81 branches hesitated. A resolution applauding the success of COP and endorsing the Freedom Charter “as the only guide to a free, united and democratic South African society” was on the agenda, but was not put to the vote, conference deciding to refer it first to the provinces and consider it again at a special national conference in April, 1956.[280]

The dissident Africanist elements in Congress objected to the Freedom Charter on two main grounds. In the first place, they maintained that the Congress of the People which had adopted the Charter was not a true expression of African nationalism, but multi-racial, and that the Congress Alliance which was being built up on the foundation of the Freedom Charter would endanger the purity and independence of African nationalism, and subject the ANC to domination or influence by other racial elements. South Africa belongs to the Africans, not to “all who live in it”, they said. A second objection was that the section of the Charter reading “The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth”, which stressed that “the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole” was tantamount to socialism, a “foreign” ideology which would lead to class friction in the ranks of the African National Congress. It was also argued that the Freedom Charter was in conflict with the 1949 Programme of Action and with the Basic Policy of the ANC Youth League as published in 1946.

Unfortunately for the Africanist elements, it was precisely the former leaders of the ANC Youth League, the very men who drafted the League’s Basic Policy document and who had worked for the adoption of the 1949 Programme of Action who were amongst the foremost advocates of the Freedom Charter. In an article in the June 1956 issue of Liberation headed “In Our Lifetime”, Nelson Mandela described the Freedom Charter as “a beacon to the Congress Movement and an inspiration to the people of South Africa.” Never before had a document been so widely discussed before being adopted by the democratic movement. “For the first time in the history of our country the democratic forces irrespective of race, ideological conviction, party affiliation or religious belief have renounced and discarded racialism in all its ramifications, clearly defined their aims and objects and united in a common programme of action.

“The Charter is more than a mere list of demands for democratic reforms. It is a revolutionary document precisely because the changes it envisages cannot be won without breaking up the economic and political set-up of present South Africa. To win the demands calls for the organisation, launching and development of mass struggles on the widest scale ... The most vital task facing the democratic movement in this country is to unleash such struggles and to develop them on the basis of the concrete and immediate demands of the people from area to area ... Only in this way will the democratic movement become a vital instrument for the winning of the democratic changes set out in the Charter.”

As for the allegation that the Charter was “socialist”, Mandela wrote:

“Whilst the Charter proclaims democratic changes of a far-reaching nature it is by no means a blue-print for a socialist state but a programme for the unification of various classes and groupings amongst the people on a democratic basis. Under socialism the workers hold state power. They and the peasants own the means of production, the land, the factories and the mills. All production is for use and not for profit.

“The Charter does not contemplate such profound economic and political changes. Its declaration ‘The People shall govern!’ visualises the transfer of power not to any single social class but to all the people of this country be they workers, peasants, professional men or petty-bourgeoisie.

“It is true that in demanding the nationalisation of the banks, the gold mines and the land the Charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold-mining monopolies and farming interests that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. But such a step is absolutely imperative and necessary because the realisation of the Charter is inconceivable, in fact impossible, unless and until these monopolies are first smashed up and the national wealth of the country turned over to the people. The breaking up and democratisation of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous Non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of this country the Non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own in their own name and right mills and factories, and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before. To destroy these monopolies means the termination of the exploitation of vast sections of the populace by mining kings and land barons and there will be a general rise in the living standards of the people. It is precisely because the Charter offers immense opportunities for an over-all improvement in the material conditions of all classes and groups that it attracts such wide support.”

The Charter was aimed to benefit all classes and groups, and likewise the democratic struggle to achieve it, said Mandela,

“is conducted by an alliance of various classes and political groupings amongst the Non-European people supported by white democratic African, Coloured and Indian workers and peasants, traders and merchants, students and teachers, doctors and lawyers, and various other classes and groupings: all participate in the struggle against racial inequality and for full democratic rights... The workers are the principal force upon which the democratic movement should rely, but to repel the savage onslaughts of the Nationalist Government and to develop the fight for democratic rights it is necessary that the other classes and groupings be joined.”

An article in New Age published under the pseudonym “Inkululeko” a few months after the Congress of the People had taken place made substantially the same point:

“The system of White supremacy has its roots in the cheap labour need of the major economic groups in the country. South Africa’s economy is dominated by giant monopolies in the gold mining. Industry linked with big financial and farming interests whose tentacles reach also into secondary industry. These groups have been responsible for the Reserve system, migratory labour, the low wage policy. These groups own and control the national wealth of our country and determine the basic structure of the South African state ...”

Equality not only of rights but also of opportunities was necessary.

“If tomorrow every discriminatory law on the statute book were repealed, but the mineral wealth, monopoly industry and financial empires were not transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole, the system of white superiority would in its basic essentials be perpetuated for many generations.”

But nationalisation did not mean the same thing as socialism. “The Charter does not advocate the abolition of private enterprise, nor is it suggested that all industries be nationalised or that all trade be controlled by the state. ‘All people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions’ says the Charter. The right to do these things would remain a dead letter without the restoration of the basic wealth of the country to the people, and without that the building of a democratic state is inconceivable."[281]

Even Mr Justice Rumpff, in his judgment at the end of the Treason Trial delivered on March 29, 1961, held “that it has not been proved the form of State pictured in the Freedom Charter is a Communist State."[282]

So the Freedom Charter is not a prescription for socialism. But is it consistent with African nationalism? The Basic Policy of the ANC Youth League as issued in a manifesto by its National Executive Committee in 1948 gave the aims of African nationalism as:

“1. The creation of a united nation out of the heterogeneous tribes;

“2. The freeing of Africa from foreign domination and foreign leadership;

“3. The creation of conditions which can enable Africa to make her own contribution to human progress and happiness.”

The purview of the document was Africa, not just South Africa.

The document stated that to achieve Africa’s freedom the Africans must build a powerful national liberation movement, led by the Africans themselves.

“The Congress Youth League believes that the goal of political organisation and action is the achievement of true democracy,

“(i) In South Africa and

“(ii) In the rest of the African continent.

“In such a true democracy all the nationalities and minorities would have their fundamental human rights guaranteed in a democratic constitution

In order to achieve this the Youth League would struggle for “(a) the removal of discriminatory laws and colour bars, “(b) the admission of the African into the full citizenship of the country so that he has direct representation in parliament on a direct basis

The Youth League thus stood for equal rights for all in a single nonracial integrated society

The Youth League policy statement then went on to make precisely the same point as the Freedom Charter:

“The Congress Youth League holds that political democracy remains an empty form without substance unless it is properly grounded on a base of economic, and especially industrial democracy.” To achieve this it called for “the redivision of land amongst farmers and peasants of all nationalities in proportion to their numbers” and “the abolition of industrial colour bars and other discriminatory provisions, so that the workers of all nationalities should be able to do skilled work and so that they should get full training and education in the skill and techniques of production.”

The Youth League formulated its economic policy as follows:

“General National Economy: Generally the Congress. Youth League aims at a National Economy which will

“(i) embrace all peoples and groups within the state.

“(ii) eliminate discrimination and ensure a just and equitable distribution of wealth among the people of all nationalities.

“(iii) as nearly as possible give all men and women an equal opportunity to improve their lot.

“(iv) in short give no scope for the domination and exploitation of one group by another.”

The Youth League specifically rejected Marcus Garvey’s slogan of “Africa for the Africans” and the slogans of “Quit Africa” or “Hurl the Whiteman to the sea” — “This brand of African Nationalism is extreme and ultra-revolutionary”, it said. “We of the Youth League take account of the concrete situation in South Africa, and realise that the different racial groups have come to stay. But we insist that a condition for inter-racial peace and progress is the abandonment of white domination, and such a change in the basic structure of South African Society that those relations which breed exploitation and human misery will disappear. Therefore our goal is the winning of National freedom for African people and the inauguration of a people’s free society where racial oppression and persecution will be outlawed.”

Surveying the forces available in the struggle for African freedom, the Youth League said “we are not against the European as a human being” but little was to be expected from the handful of progressive whites. However, the Youth League programme specifically stated:

“The National Organisations of the Africans, Indians and Coloureds may co-operate on common issues.”

The Youth League warned against “Pseudo-nationalism” and. “fascist agents":

“African Nationalists have to be on the lookout for people who pretend to be Nationalists when in fact they are only imperialist or capitalist agents, using Nationalistic slogans in order to cloak their reactionary position. These elements should be exposed and discredited... . Still another group that should be closely watched, and wherever possible, ruthlessly exposed, is that section of Africans who call themselves ‘Nationalists’ but who are in fact agents and lackeys of Nazi and Fascist organisations. Genuine African Nationalists should be perpetually vigilant and spare no effort to denounce and eventually crush these dangerous vipers."[283]

One of the foremost exponents of African nationalism, as propounded by the ANC Youth League, was A.P. Mda, one of the League’s founders and at one time national president. At the 1949 conference of the League Mda expressly denounced chauvinism and pleaded for a broad and progressive nationalism. In a political review delivered on his behalf at the 1951 ANC conference which adopted the resolution to launch the Defiance Campaign, Mda advocated the unity of all the democratic forces in South Africa.[284]

An article attacking the “Nationalist Bloc” in the ANC was published in the September 1951 issue of the Youth League journal Lodestar:

The A.N.C.Y.L. writes to expose to its members in particular and the African people in general, the character of these (National-minded bloc) backward looking and reactionary elements that hide the real nature of their activities by voicing Nationalistic fulminations and slogans ... . The Congress is a National Liberatory Movement, within whose fold will be found many shades of political opinion ranging from the extreme left, which reflect the development of the African people as an entity striving to overthrow foreign domination. At the present historical stage this organisational form of Congress is politically correct.”

An editorial in the same issue welcomed the decision of the Joint Executives of the A.N.C., S.A.I.C. and Franchise Action Council to establish a Planning Council to co-ordinate their activities. The editorial stated:

“We do not advocate the doing of anything which may place at a disadvantage the national and international position of our struggle. Consequently we also welcome the decision of the National Executive to co-operate with the other National Organisations in the country as long as they support our struggle for independence. On this basis would also welcome alliances with those world powers which are in full accord with our aspirations."[285]

The “Basic Policy” document of the Youth League constituted perhaps the most elaborate definition of the philosophy and aims of African nationalism up to the time the ANC was declared illegal in 1960. As we have seen, and as leading Congressmen proclaimed thereafter, there is no conflict whatsoever between the Freedom Charter and the Basic Policy. In fact the one is an extension of the other. As for the 1949 Programme of Action, this was not so much a statement of policy as an outline of the methods to be used to achieve the right of self-determination by the African people. Discussing this point in Liberation, Ro. Ngubengcuka pointed out that the Freedom Charter, far from being a departure from the 1949 Programme of Action was complementary to it. He added:

“As a matter of fact it is inconceivable that the democratic changes envisaged in the Charter can be won unless the Congress movement makes full use of the weapons of struggle outlined in the Programme together with such other weapons as concrete conditions might from time to time dictate."[286]

Thus in opposing the Freedom Charter, the so-called Africanists or “national-minded” elements were in fact opposing the very policies the claimed to be defending. The Freedom Charter was a logical sequence to all that had gone before in the development of the progressive nationalism of the ANC in South Africa. The character of the nationalism espoused by the ANC was succinctly defined by President-General Chief A.J. Lutuli in his Freedom Day message on June 26, 1957 as marking:

“the acceptance by aborigine Africans that in Southern Africa the cry: ‘AFRICA FOR THE AFRICANS!’ should be given a wider compass in meaning to embrace an Africanism that includes in its orbit, on the basis of equality and friendship, all people in our land, regardless of their land of origin, race, colour or creed, who pay undivided loyalty to South Africa, a concept anathema to racialists on both sides of the colour line."[287]

That the Africanists were in a decided minority was proved at the special ANC conference held in Johannesburg in April 1956, when the Freedom Charter was adopted as the programme of the ANC. The conference was attended by 224 delegates from all over the country, but the Africanist minority numbered only 16, and though they were given every opportunity to state their case they were unable to make any headway. The Africanist group was headed by Potlako Leballo, later to become one of the leaders of the breakaway Pan-Africanist Congress. He and his group had been expelled from the Orlando branch of the ANC Youth League some years previously, but had retained their membership of the ANC.

The Africanists tried to block the adoption of the Charter by claiming that the 1955 Bloemfontein ANC conference had deferred the Charter for discussion at the next annual conference in December, not at the special conference in April. When this ploy failed, they resorted to the weapon of anti-Communism, shouting from the back of the hall “Stalin is dead”, but the mood of the conference was against them and the Charter was adopted to the accompaniment of cheers and spontaneous singing.[286]

In a May Day message, Kotane hailed the Freedom Charter as a “beacon to the congress movement and an inspiration to the people of South Africa.” But with the Government increasing its repressive measures, tightening up the pass laws and extending them to women, depriving the Coloured people of their vote, banning and banishing the people’s leaders, he stressed:

“We have a big task before us: the ending of oppression, racial discrimination and injustices in this country. For this we need an organised force, capable and ready at all times to frustrate the plans and intentions of the ruling class, and which constantly presses forward the demands of the people. It is therefore the duty of every worker, every democrat and every true South African to work actively for the building of a powerful progressive united front movement which will, in the spirit of the Freedom Charter, work and fight for the abolition of political oppression, economic exploitation and social discrimination and injustices in South Africa."[289]

1956 was a year of great tension, both nationally and internationally, and it required men with steady heads and cool judgement to keep the movement on an even keel. In February, the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union dropped a bombshell when it denounced the cult of the individual which had led to many abuses and the frustration of democratic collective leadership. In the same month the South African Government arbitrarily closed the Soviet Consulates in South Africa giving as an excuse that they were inciting people against the Government and apartheid.

ANC President-General Chief Lutuli denounced the Government’s accusation that the Soviet Consulate had been responsible for subversive activities amongst the Non-European people in the Union as “sheer propaganda”, and on behalf of the ANC called on the Government to reverse its action. Chief Lutuli concluded his statement with the words:

“The freedom and peace-loving people of our land must demonstrate to the world that, beyond any doubt, they stand with all freedom and peace-loving people in the world such as the people of the U.S.S.R."[290]

Later in the year the coincidence of the counter-revolution in Hungary and the imperialist attack on Egypt over the Suez Canal once again led progressives in South Africa of all races to reaffirm their stand against imperialism. Early in October the five Congresses sent a joint deputation to the Egyptian Consulate in Pretoria supporting Egypt’s sovereign right to nationalise the Suez Canal.

At home, with Premier Strijdom and Native Affairs Minister Verwoerd calling the tune, the Nationalist Government was stepping up its attack on the people. Mass demonstrations and pass burnings in many centres culminated in the mighty march of 20,000 women of all races to the Union Buildings, in Pretoria, to present a petition to the Premier, asserting their right to be free. Revolts broke out against the chiefs in the country areas who were trying to force the women to take the passes. In Evaton and other centres, blacks boycotted the buses in protest against increased fares and, in some areas, the introduction of segregated seating. As the confrontation sharpened, there were several clashes between the people and the police, resulting in scores of deaths and injuries. Mass police raids in the townships were the order of the night.

Verwoerd and Strijdom, both bitter-enders, believed in a policy of no concessions. The number of banned and banished mounted, African meetings in Port Elizabeth were banned by proclamation. Mr B.J. Vorster, Nationalist Party MP for Nigel, later to become Prime Minister, stressed that it was the policy of his party towards the African to “turn him into a good kaffir again.”

On May 4, 1956, six uniformed police, two white and four African, visited the home of Moses Kotane at 8 a.m. and arrested him on a charge of being in Alexandra Township without a permit. When the police arrived at his house they said they had come “on behalf of the Government” and asked to see his papers. After examining Kotane’s tax receipt, they asked him to explain how he earned his living. Finally they asked to see his permit to live in the township. When he failed to produce one, they said they were arresting him on a charge under the Urban Areas Act and ‘ordered him into the “kwela-kwela” (police truck) drawn up outside the house. Apart from the six police, Kotane was the sole occupant of the truck as it drove through the streets from his house to the police station. There he was told he could pay a fine on admission of guilt or be released on bail of 3. Kotane elected to be bailed out and was locked in the cells for a few hours until released by his lawyer.

Kotane had lived unhindered in Alexandra since arriving from Cape Town in l950 but when he was brought before the court two weeks after his arrest in May, 1956, he was found guilty of being in the township without a permit and sentenced to 14 days imprisonment or 1 fine. His counsel Harry Bloom argued that Alexandra was not a township in terms of the Urban Areas Act and that Kotane did not therefore fall under the restrictions of the influx control laws, which provided for the control of entry of Africans into the towns, their segregation and accommodation there. The magistrate delivered his verdict in three sentences: “I'm satisfied the township is an urban area; that the health committee is a local authority. The accused did remain in the area without the written permission of the local authority. I find him guilty.” Bloom gave notice of appeal.

Kotane lost his appeal, but remained at his home in Alexandra. Accordingly, one night in September 1956, 19 police in a “kwela-kwela” came to arrest him again. Kotane was ill in bed on this occasion, but the police told him to “get up” and “come” and he was then ordered into the police van full to the brim with men arrested in one of the township’s periodic raids for passes and permits. The authorities had obviously decided he was to be harassed out of the area if they could manage it.[291]

The administrative process of getting Kotane removed from Alexandra was never finalised. To protect himself, he took on a “front” job as a butcher’s assistant in Alexandra, only to find himself a few months later the victim of a far more serious attack. At 5a.m. on the morning of December 5, 1956, Kotane was roused from his bed and arrested on a charge of treason.