South Africa: a new government
From People’s Charter to Freedom Charter:
Violent and Non-violent Democratic Struggle in Britain and South Africa
by David Philips
In February 1990 the white apartheid President F.W. de Klerk took the gamble of releasing Nelson Mandela from prison and ending the thirty year ban on the ANC, the PAC and the SACP. Their unbanning happened a life-time ago: a teenage student now preparing to enter university and to vote for the first time at the next election in 2009, would have been born then.
The country now having elected a new ANC leadership, South African voters may find themselves still looking for evidence that the ideals of the Freedom Charter are being honoured or even remembered.
Some months before he died suddenly in August 2008, David Philips sent London Grip this summary of the two great narratives of liberation, sequences of political events that produced democracy first in Britain when South Africa was its colony, and then, after a hard-won battle, democracy in the former apartheid state.
At the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, in which I did my first degree in the mid-1960s, there was an annual Academic Freedom Lecture – to commemorate the fact that the University in fact had lost its academic freedom in 1959 when the South African Government passed the misleadingly-titled Extension of University Education Act: it compelled all universities to become racially-segregated institutions. One speaker began his talk by saying that “Talking about freedom in South Africa today is like lecturing on navigation while the ship goes down”. That was highly appropriate for apartheid South Africa in the 1960s; but I wonder if it may not have some relevance even here and now.
Among the historians whom I have read and taught with great pleasure is Asa Briggs, a leading historian of Victorian Britain. In his 1958 pioneering work on the Chartist movement, one passage, almost an aside, caught my eye:
The Chartist failure was inevitable, but it robs the movement neither of its interest nor of its importance. The Radical demand for the Six Points survived the failure of the Chartist attempt to secure them: the dream of social democracy lost much of its appeal, but it did not disappear. Taken by itself simply as an episode in working-class history, the story of Chartism has many parallels in more recent periods of history in other parts of the world. Most of the differences in outlook, tactics and even principles, which it reflected, and the basic problem it posed, that of ‘independent’ action … continue to be relevant in colonial nationalist movements. Even the name ‘Charter’ has been employed by protest movements in South Africa. [Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies (Macmillan, London: 1967), p. 291.]
That was all that Briggs said, in 1958, about that connection between the movement which agitated for democracy in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s and the anti-apartheid movements of the 1950s; but, coming from South Africa, I recognised his reference to the Freedom Charter of 1955 in South Africa. To the best of my knowledge, no other historian – British or South African – has written about the connection between these two documents and movements.
I might add to Briggs’ the views of Sir Robert Birley, former headmaster of the English public schools of Charterhouse and Eton. Birley spent the years 1964-66 as Visiting Professor of Education at Wits, coinciding exactly with my undergraduate years there; and, since he was passionately keen on history, I was able to get to know him well. He spent much of his time visiting (segregated) Black high schools in the complex of Black townships then becoming known as Soweto, the huge complex of Black townships South-west of Johannesburg, which provided the city’s labour force. Being an establishment Englishman of unimpeachable respectability, Birley loved to capitalise on that fact to tweak the tail of authority. One of his favourite stories was of how he would tell the young Black students about the 19th-Century Chartist movement in Britain, and he would always add: “And then I said to them, ‘And when you win your freedom in South Africa…’, and all the children sat up, listening intently with their eyes shining…”
That was in the mid-1960s; a decade later, as we’ll see, the schoolchildren of Soweto were to make a major contribution to the attainment of that freedom.
Taking my cue from Briggs and Birley, I thought it might be interesting to bring together these two areas of great historical interest to me – 19th century Britain and 20th century South Africa – and to do so by reflecting on connections between these two documents, the People’s Charter and the Freedom Charter, and their political resonances.
The People’s Charter: Britain
The People’s Charter was drawn up in 1837 by a small London group of radical artisans, led by William Lovett with the aid of a few sympathetic Radical MPs. This was shortly after the First Reform Act of 1832 had extended the vote in Britain to urban householders paying at least £10 a year in rent or rates – a qualification deliberately designed to enfranchise the middle classes down to small shopkeepers, but to keep out the working-class. Even though that Act gave nothing directly to the workers, most of the politically organised working-class had supported the passage of the Reform Bill with huge mass meetings, demonstrations, even riots – on the grounds that, if they helped the middle-class to get a vote now, the middle-class would subsequently use its new political powers to enfranchise the workers.
But those who had believed this were quickly disillusioned. In the new Reformed Parliament, middle-class MPs used their powers to resist attempts at legislation to control hours and conditions of work in the textile factories; and passed the New Poor Law of 1834 which imposed harshly deterrent conditions for the receipt of poor relief, the only form of social welfare then available. Disillusionment over this middle-class ‘betrayal’ was an important force in producing the Chartist movement.
The Charter was published in May 1838, in the form of a Parliamentary Bill designed to enact six points:
- Universal Suffrage. (Most Chartists meant by this votes for men, although a few were prepared to consider a vote for women as well.)
- Vote by Secret Ballot
- No Property Qualifications for MPs
- Payment of MPs
- Equal Electoral Districts
- Annual Parliaments (that is, annual elections)
Lovett and his colleagues in the London Working Men’s Association came from what was already being referred to as the ‘aristocracy of labour’ – self-educated, politically-aware artisans. Their idea was to act as a political elite who would educate their fellow-workers politically and push for gradual political change. But they found events taken out of their hands. As early-industrial Britain entered one of its worst cycles of economic depression from 1837, the idea of the Charter was taken up by other radical groups around the country. There was a revival of the Birmingham Political Union, a middle- and working-class group led by banker Thomas Attwood, which had played an important part in getting the Reform Act passed. Attwood now revived it, being dissatisfied with what the Reform Act had achieved.
The idea of the Charter was also taken up, most notably, by the militant working-class anti-New Poor Law movement in the industrial North of England. This movement came under the leadership of Feargus O’Connor, an Irish former MP, who moved to Leeds where he founded the Northern Star newspaper which became the main organ of the Chartist movement.
In these, much larger, groups, the idea gained force of mounting a massive petition to Parliament, asking them to enact the Charter as law. At huge mass meetings held all over the country, signatures were collected for the petition, and delegates were elected to a National Convention. The Convention met in London in February 1839. It remained in session until September 1839, moving to the friendlier territory of Birmingham in May, but it became increasingly divided over the issue of what measures they should take in order to try and obtain the Charter. In July 1839, the Petititon was presented to the House of Commons, containing 1,280,000 signatures. Not surprisingly, it was overwhelmingly rejected by the Commons.
The Convention then began to dissolve in internal dissension over what they should do, now that Parliament had rejected the Petition. There was a half-hearted attempt at a general strike in August 1839, which failed. Meanwhile, the Government, receiving reports of the large angry mass meetings, and of Chartists arming and drilling themselves, feared a possible insurrection. They deployed troops throughout the industrial areas and pushed through the establishment of new local police forces to deal with any trouble. In November 1839 came the ‘Newport Rising’ in South Wales. About 7,000 miners from the South Wales coalfields, under Chartist leadership and with guns in their hands, marched on the town of Newport where they were confronted by a detachment of about forty regular soldiers barricaded in a hotel. The soldiers fired a few volleys which killed twenty-four of the Chartists and quickly scattered the rest of them. This was followed by disturbances in some of the industrial areas, and a large number of arrests and trials of Chartists. The three leaders of the Newport Rising – John Frost, Zephaniah Williams & William Jones – were sentenced to death for treason; their sentences were commuted, and they were transported for life to Van Diemen’s Land. This ended the first phase of Chartism at the end of 1839.
The failure of that first phase led to a brief lull in Chartism. In July 1840, the organisation was reconstituted as the National Charter Association which people formally joined to become card-carrying members. In 1842, as the economic depression worsened again to reach its lowest point in that year, Chartist support revived. A second Petition – this time bearing 3,300,000 signatures – was presented to the Commons in May 1842. The petition began by stating, “That the only authority on which any body of men can make laws and govern society, is delegation from the people. That as Government was designed for the benefit and protection of, and must be obeyed and supported by, all, therefore all should be equally represented.”
The authors drew MPs’ attention to the unrepresentative nature of Parliament, the heavy taxation, the extent of poverty and gross inequalities of income, and what they called the “unconstitutional” and “unchristian character” of the New Poor Law which harshly deterred the poor from receiving relief. They complained of the long hours of work in the factories and the “starvation wages of the agricultural labourer”. And they forcefully asserted that their rights to express their grievances publicly were being repressed:
That an unconstitutional police force is distributed all over the country, at enormous cost, to prevent the due exercise of the people’s rights. And your petitioners are of opinion that the Poor-law Bastiles [workhouses] and the police stations, being co-existent, have originated from the same cause, viz., the increased desire on the part of the irresponsible few to oppress and starve the many.
They ended by ominously reminding the MPs that “Your petitioners are of opinion that it is the worst species of legislation which leaves the grievances of society to be removed only by violence or revolution, both of which may be apprehended if complaints are unattended to and petitions despised.” And they asked Parliament, as a remedy for these ills, to enact the Charter.
The Commons voted, by a majority of 287 to 49 not even to receive the Petition, let alone to debate it seriously. The leading speech in the debate was made by Thomas Macaulay, the famous historian and Whig MP. Macaulay insisted that the petitioners were deluded in thinking that democratic reform would help to solve their problems and stated bluntly:
I believe that universal suffrage would be fatal to all purposes for which government exists, … and that it is utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilization. I conceive that civilization rests on the security of property. … Believing this, I will oppose with every faculty which I possess the proposition for universal suffrage.
That debate was in May. August and September of that terrible depression year 1842, saw a series of strikes and disturbances – known to historians as the ‘Plug Plot’ – in virtually all the major industrial districts of the North & Midlands of England – Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire. The strikes were not directly instigated by the Chartist leadership; they began as a series of reactions by workers to their employers’ wage cuts in the midst of a severe depression but local Chartist leaders became involved in helping to organise the workers. The national Chartist leadership then tried to persuade the strikers to stay out on strike until the Charter became law. The Government sent in large numbers of troops who broke the strikes and suppressed the disturbances. Many people were prosecuted – and imprisoned or transported – for their part in the disturbances. The failure of the ‘Plug Plot’ marked the end of the second phase of Chartism.
In many respects, 1842 was the turning-point for Chartism. After 1842, the movement never recaptured the same momentum, especially as economic conditions began to improve from 1843 onwards. Under the increasing personal dominance of Feargus O’Connor the movement began to put its efforts into O’Connor’s ‘Land Plan’. This involved getting Chartists to subscribe money with which the movement bought up a few landed estates on which some industrial workers were resettled on small-holdings on the land. The plan was not a complete failure but – not surprisingly – it failed to make a serious dent in the overall problems of the new industrial society.
In 1848, with the return of an economic depression and with revolutions breaking out all over continental Europe, the Chartist leadership had one more try at a giant petition. O’Connor called a mass meeting at Kennington Common, in South London (now the Oval cricket ground) on 10 April 1848. From here, O’Connor and his following set off to deliver to Parliament the third Petition, containing – it was claimed – six million signatures. However, O’Connor had made the tactical error of holding his meeting on the south side of the Thames, which meant that he had to cross the river to get to Parliament; the authorities had made massive preparations for the day, fully mobilising the Metropolitan police force, drafting in thousands of troops and swearing in many thousands of special constables for the day. O’Connor found all the bridges across the river blocked by troops & police. He backed down from a confrontation with them, choosing instead to tell his followers to disperse, while he took the petition in a cab to the House of Commons. In Parliament, the petition was laughed out of the House when it was found that there were far fewer than the claimed six million signatures, and that many of those there, were false – including the alleged signatures of Queen Victoria, Duke of Wellington, and people signing themselves as ‘Pugnose’, ‘No Cheese’, and so on. But there were still found to be two million genuine signatures. This was followed by Chartist disturbances in some industrial areas, and even an attempted insurrection that summer – but they were easily dealt with by the increasingly-confident authorities, leading to more arrests, trials, prison and transportation. That marked the end of the Chartists as a serious mass political organisation. The Chartist organisation remained in existence formally for another decade until 1858, but it became limited to just a handful of leaders and a number of newspapers and periodicals serving a small and diminishing audience.
The Freedom Charter – South Africa
The Freedom Charter is part of the long history of struggle against racist laws and for democracy in South Africa. It was the work, predominantly, of the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC was founded in 1912, less than two years after the Union of South Africa came into existence. It involved indigenous African men, from all the main ethnic groups of South Africa, emphasising their ‘national’, rather than tribal, allegiances. It was the work, initially, of a small educated elite among the African population. For their first forty years, they were self-consciously respectable, peaceful and constitutional in their political behaviour. To a long string of Government acts of dispossession, repression and removal of the few political rights which Black Africans had, the ANC responded with petitions and deputations to Government – which achieved nothing at all.
This began to change during WWII, inspired particularly by the Atlantic Charter (issued by Churchill & Roosevelt in 1941) which set out the Allies’ goal of fighting for freedom against the Nazi racial tyranny. It emphasised the evils of the Nazi racist ideology, and the rights of all peoples to self-determination and freedom. Though not intended this way by Churchill and Roosevelt, the Atlantic Charter was taken seriously by colonised peoples in many parts of Asia, and in Africa it stimulated African nationalists – including some young members of the ANC in South Africa. It led to the formation of the ANC Youth League in 1944, involving a number of young Africans, including a young Nelson Mandela and his close political associate Oliver Tambo. They set out to prod the ANC into more dynamic and aggressive action – still non-violent, but militant, rather than passive. They took as their model Mohandas Gandhi who had lived in South Africa for some twenty-two years from 1892 to 1914. He began his political campaigns there, as a founder-member of what became the South African Indian Congress (SAIC).
In 1949, the ANC adopted the Youth League’s Programme of Action. In 1952, together with the SAIC, they staged the Defiance Campaign, targeting six laws of the new apartheid government to defy non-violently. For example, African men refused to carry passes, as required by law, or deliberately entered areas marked ‘Whites Only’, allowing themselves to be arrested. The campaign was deliberately non-violent. There was a vague hope that the numbers of those arrested would be so great that they would clog up the machinery of justice. Between June & December 1952 more than 8,000 volunteers were arrested for their defiant acts but the government defeated the campaign by repression. They legislated for sentences of three to five years’ imprisonment plus whipping for those who incited others to break the law; and they used their sweeping powers under their recently-passed Suppression of Communism Act to prosecute the ANC leadership, and to place individuals under banning orders under the arbitrary powers which the Act gave to the Minister of Justice. In these circumstances, the ANC and SAIC called off the campaign; but the mobilisation and activism had the effect of boosting the ANC’s membership from about 7,000 to about 100,000.
The ANC decided that it needed to bring together all the organisations representing the struggle against apartheid, and to formulate a policy document to set that out. With that in mind, they set in train ambitious and extensive consultations with African communities in every part of the country to ask them to state their grass-roots grievances and demands, and what they wanted in terms of political, social and economic change. They co-operated with the SAIC, the South African Coloured People’s Organisation, the Congress of Democrats (an organisation for Whites, replacing the banned Communist Party), and the non-racial South African Congress of Trade Unions, to convene a huge Congress of the People.
On Saturday 25th June 1955 almost 3,000 delegates from all over the country – predominantly African, but including Indians, Coloured and Whites – met at Kliptown, on the veld outside Johannesburg, now part of Soweto. The Congress lasted for two days, Saturday and Sunday, until the police broke it up. Here, the Congress Alliance formally adopted the Freedom Charter, which became the fundamental document of the ANC. That name, ‘Freedom Charter’, deliberately contained echoes of both the People’s Charter of 19th century Britain, and the Atlantic Charter of 1941. It begins:
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 Freedom Charter is basically a call for a liberal democratic South Africa, without any form of racial discrimination. A few clauses certainly show socialist influence – such as those calling for nationalisation of the mines, banks and industry – “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole . . .” – and for division of the land among those work it: “Restrictions of land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land re-divided amongst those who work it to banish famine and land hunger . . .”
In the 1950s, such calls for nationalisation were standard in Social-Democratic parties, including the British and Australian Labour Parties.
The Charter is essentially a set of aspirations or wishes – which collectively would add up to the end of apartheid and its discrimination and repression. It includes these goals, distinctly progressive for 1955:
Men and women of all races shall receive equal pay for equal work; there shall be a forty-hour working week, a national minimum wage, paid annual leave, and sick leave for all workers, and maternity leave on full pay for all working mothers . . .
But the Charter contains no ideas of how to achieve this in the face of an intransigent apartheid state; and in that respect, the aspirations of the Charter seemed highly improbable of attainment in the climate of the South Africa of 1955.
The Congress of the People itself was broken up on the second day by police, who confiscated signs and banners. And the Government subsequently took severe repressive action against the leaders who had formulated the Charter and called together the Congress.
The People’s Charter and Democracy in Britain
Chartism failed in the 1830s and 1840s; but five of their six points have subsequently become standard features of all parliamentary democracies. In Britain, this happened in a slow, gradual, non-violent way, without any revolution or even revolutionary violence. It took close to a century for those five points to become a normal part of the British political system:
- The vote was extended, by the Second Reform Act (1867) to urban working-class men, and by the Third Reform Act (1884) to rural working-class men. Not until the end of WWI did all men, and most women, get the vote. The 1918 Act enfranchised all men over 21 and all women over 30. Finally, in 1928, women were given the vote on equal terms with men
- The first of the six points to be enacted into law in 1858 was the abolition of the Property Qualification for MPs.
- Next came vote by Secret Ballot – achieved in 1872.
- The 1885 Act, accompanying the Third Reform Act, began the shift to Equal Electoral Districts by implementing the principle of redistribution of parliamentary seats in terms of population.
- Payment of a salary to MPs came in 1911.
The only one of the six points never to be enacted was that for annual elections. In the 1830s and 1840s, the British Parliament was only obliged to go to elections every seven years – clearly too long a period away from the check imposed by the electorate. Radicals argued that the only way to make MPs fully responsible to their electorate was to make elections more frequent. The Chartists called for annual elections; middle-class Radicals pushed for triennial parliaments – a provision which was transported to the Australian legislatures, with responsible government, in the mid-19th century. In Britain, the Parliament Act (1911), which removed the power of veto from the House of Lords, also reduced the term of Parliament from seven to five years – which is still the case today. There is general agreement that, for the complexities of a 21st-Century economy, even triennial elections, as in Australia, are too frequent; and it seems safe to predict that Annual Parliaments is the one point of the six points which will never become part of our parliamentary democratic systems. Other than this, however, the other five Points were achieved in Britain, without violent conflict and by gradual change, over a period of ninety years following the original publication of the People’s Charter in 1838.
The Freedom Charter and the Liberation Struggle in South Africa
The history of South Africa’s subsequent development towards democracy took a shorter period of time, but was considerably bloodier and more violent.
The South African government responded to the aspirations of the Freedom Charter with repression. A year and a half after the Congress of the People, in December 1956, the authorities arrested all 156 leaders of the Congress Alliance and charged them all with High Treason, on the grounds that the Freedom Charter promoted a “communistic revolution”. Amongst the familiar names of those arrested were Helen Joseph, Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo and his wife Ruth First, Oliver Tambo. The resulting ‘Treason Trial’, as it became known, dragged on for a long four and a half years. The Preparatory Examination of the 156 accused opened in December 1956. The accused were represented by some of the best lawyers in the country, and the Defence Team made big holes in the prosecution case. By the time the trial proper opened, in August 1958, only 91 accused were left; the Crown had dropped the indictment against 65 of them. In April 1959 the indictment was quashed against another 61, leaving just thirty of them, including Mandela and Sisulu, still on trial for treason. Finally, in March 1961 the Judge found those remaining thirty all Not Guilty. So, after four and a half years, the Government had failed to sustain in open court its charges of treason against a single one of them: everyone of the 156 was legally acquitted.
Formally, it was a great legal victory for the Congress Alliance leaders, having beaten the Government in court. But it was very much a pyrrhic victory. While the Treason Trial had been in progress, those leaders on trial had been forced to concentrate on their own defence, so they were unable to attend to the business of their movements. And the Treason Trial proved to be the last time that the South African Government used conventional legal means, through the courts and under the normal restraints imposed by the Rule of Law, to deal with its opposition. Thereafter, the Government moved to the use of arbitrary repression, and largely by-passed the courts and the restraints of the Rule of Law. Furthermore, by the time the trial was fully over, in March 1961, the position of the ANC, and the whole situation in SA, had changed dramatically as a result of events in 1959 flowing on into March-April 1960.
The 1959 changes were a direct result of the Freedom Charter. A number of angry young African men, calling themselves ‘Africanists’, objected to the opening sentence, that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, Black and White”. They argued to the contrary that the country belonged properly only to its indigenous people, the Africans and the Coloureds, and not to the Whites or the Indians, who were outsiders. Under the leadership of ANC Youth Leaguer Robert Sobukwe, they broke away from the ANC in April 1959 to set up the rival organisation, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). Their criticisms of the ANC and its current leadership can be basically summarised in three related broad issues:
· The ANC was too multi-racial, too much under the influence of Whites and Indians in particular, and too little prepared to state that South Africa was primarily the country of the Africans, whose specific interests should be given clear priority.
· The ANC was too much influenced by Communists and too concerned with left-wing matters, and should rather pursue specifically African nationalist interests.
· The ANC was too moderate and peaceful in its tactics, which were not working. The PAC promised a more aggressive and militant policy, to challenge the apartheid authorities directly.
In March 1960, the PAC tried to pre-empt the ANC by organising a mass protest against the Pass Laws. On 21 March 1960, at the police station in the township of Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg, 75 police armed with automatic weapons opened fire on a peaceful protesting crowd of about 10,000 people. By the time they ceased firing, 69 lay dead and 186 were wounded, most of them shot in the back as they ran away.
The Massacre at Sharpeville dramatically sharpened the conflict in South Africa. Not only did it put South Africa onto the front pages of the world’s newspapers, but the Government also followed it with severely repressive measures. Nine days later, on 30 March 1960, a State of Emergency was declared which allowed the police to arrest and detain without trial nearly 20,000 people. On 8 April 1960 the Government banned both the ANC and the PAC. Henceforth, it was an offence to belong to either organisation, to further their aims, or to possess any of their literature.
Just before the final verdict in the Treason Trial, Nelson Mandela made one last attempt to avert the looming violent confrontation. Since 1956 he had been under an arbitrary Government banning order which prevented him being able to attend any public gatherings or make any public speeches. In March 1961, his banning order expired, and he was briefly able to speak publicly again. He took advantage of this to speak at a national All-In Conference, called to consider the future of the country. Mandela called for a National Convention, with representatives of all groups in South Africa, elected on an equal adult franchise, to draw up a new non-racial constitution for the country. The Government ignored this call, and Mandela then went underground. The ANC decided – with all legal opposition banned – to end its 49-year commitment to non-violent action, and to set up a military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) under Mandela’s leadership, to engage in sabotage and possible guerrilla warfare against the apartheid government.
However, the security forces quickly broke these initial efforts. Mandela and his colleagues were tried for the capital offence of sabotage in the Rivonia Trial of 1963-4. They did not try to deny what they had done: they knew that they would be found guilty. The only question was whether or not the Judge would impose the death sentence. Mandela took the opportunity to make a speech from the dock, in which he put what they had done in historical context. He ended the speech with a paragraph much quoted since then:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Fortunately for the world, the Judge chose not to impose the death sentence, but sent Mandela and his colleagues to life imprisonment on Robben Island, the maximum-security prison offshore from Cape Town. They disappeared from the world’s view for the next twenty-six years. The South African Government was back in full control. Western countries resumed full investment in the South African economy, with huge profits offered by South Africa’s mineral resources and cheap Black labour force; and South Africa enjoyed about a decade of booming economic growth and political quiescence. What ended this quiescence and changed South Africa’s history dramatically, was the courage of the Black South African youth. On 16 June 1976, the schoolchildren of Soweto went out into the streets to protest against their education, particularly the fact that they were forced to learn half of their subjects in Afrikaans, the language of the apartheid oppressor. They were met by armed police who ordered them to disperse; when they refused, the police opened fire. But what was remarkable was that the Soweto students refused to be cowed, and came back to confront the police. Their example was followed by Black students elsewhere in South Africa. It took the Government nearly six months to regain control of the situation. By that time, more than five hundred people had been killed; and many of the youth of the ‘Soweto generation’, at the end of 1976 slipped illegally across the border into Botswana to become guerrillas of Umkhonto we Sizwe, to return to South Africa with AK47 rifles in their hands.
‘Soweto ‘76’ swung the psychological balance back to the forces of resistance, and the Government never recovered the full political initiative. In the 1980s, the anti-apartheid forces regrouped. In 1983, veterans of the ANC from the 1950s (some of them newly-released from prison) joined with youth and community activists to form the United Democratic Front (UDF), which became a sort of legal surrogate for the still-banned, ANC. Using the slogan ‘UDF Unites – Apartheid Divides’, they adopted the ANC’s old non-racial programme, and agitated for the release of Mandela and other political prisoners, and an end to apartheid. They even adopted the Freedom Charter, introducing its provisions to a new generation; and in 1985 they used the 30th anniversary of the original adoption of the Charter in 1955, as an opportunity to spread its message and reinvigorate its provisions.
The other side of the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s was a good deal bloodier and more violent. Township youth – calling themselves ‘Comrades’ – now openly challenged the police and troops who occupied the townships. Many of them were killed, but they continued to defy the authorities, turning the funerals of activists into political occasions. The ‘Township Revolt’, as it became known, became increasingly violent, bloody and dirty. The ‘Comrades’ targeted Black collaborators with the apartheid state – Black policemen, Black township councillors, and police informers; they petrol-bombed their houses, and devised the ‘necklace’ – putting a rubber tyre filled with petrol round the neck of the person and setting fire to it – as a gruesome form of punishment for suspected informers. The Security Police set up, on a farm near Pretoria, Vlakplaas, a base for death squads who abducted, tortured and killed large numbers of activists. By the end of the 1980s, the situation had reached a stalemate; the ‘Comrades’, and the guerrillas ofUmkhonto we Sizwe, could not bring down the Government, which remained strong and powerful; but the security forces were unable to stamp out the Comrades who were making the townships ungovernable. And the South African economy was in serious trouble, with foreign investment fleeing the country under the combined effects of international campaigns for economic sanctions and the end of the old easy profits of apartheid.
It needed an act of some courage to break the stalemate. This was eventually done by the new President F.W. de Klerk. On 2nd February 1990, de Klerk unbanned the ANC, PAC and SA Communist Party. Nine days later, he released the world’s most famous political prisoner, Nelson Mandela. As soon as Mandela was out, he called for national negotiations – just as he had done back in 1961, before the thirty wasted years of repression and bloodshed.
The negotiations which eventuated were neither simple nor easy; they were long and tortuous, and accompanied by a continuing high rate of violence. But eventually, in December 1993, the various groups agreed on a new Interim Constitution, under which democratic elections could be held. That Constitution included a Bill of Rights – arguably the most comprehensive Bill of Rights in the world. Emerging from the nightmare of apartheid was a good guide to what rights needed to be spelled out and protected in the ‘new South Africa’. To take just one section from that Bill of Rights:
Section 8. Equality.
- Every person shall have the right to equality before the law and to equal protection of the law.
- No person shall be unfairly discriminated against, directly or indirectly, and, without derogating from the generality of this provision on one or more of the following grounds in particular: race, gender, sex, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture or language.
That once impossible aspiration of the Freedom Charter – ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, Black and White” – now became part of South Africa’s new fundamental law, to be upheld and enforced by the new Constitutional Court.
Under that Interim Constitution, South Africa held its first-ever free and democratic elections at the end of April 1994. The elections were far from perfect – hardly surprising, considering that most of the population had never voted before, and many of them were illiterate. But the election was so remarkable for South Africa that it has been referred to as the “small miracle”; for the three days of the election, the ever-present violence diminished to virtually nothing. People stood in very long lines to vote, in a spirit of patient and cheerful friendliness. The result was an overwhelming triumph for the ANC, which took 62.5% of the vote; and on 10th May 1994, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically-elected President. As he said in his inaugural speech:
Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud. … We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.
No-one would claim that the ‘rainbow nation’ of the ‘new South Africa’ is a perfect society – politically, economically or socially. Historians know well that history never works so neatly; and one doesn’t dispose of the legacy of decades of racist oppression overnight. But when one looks back to when the Congress Alliance endorsed the Freedom Charter in Kliptown back in June 1955, and how improbable it then seemed that it would ever be realised in practice, it is still an achievement remarkable in modern history.