Militant, September 1988

Nimrod Sejake - No Retreat from the Freedom Charter

On the 18th of September 1955, members of the African National Congress, the South African Congress of Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, met in the Trades Hall, Commissioner Street, Johannesburg, to discuss the Freedom Charter and the way forward.

On 26th June 1955, we had all gathered at Kliptown to formulate from aspirations gathered door-to-door all over our country, our constitution for a Liberated South Africa. We called it the Freedom Charter.

Since 1955, this document has been an inspiration to millions of oppressed Black people in South Africa and to some whites who supported us. IN the past two years in South Africa, it has been accepted by trade unions representing a million workers in COSATU, the Congress of South African Trades Unions, as the minimum programme of the workers' movement.

Our Freedom Charter is specific. "The banks, all monopoly industry, mining and mineral wealth shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole…the land shall be owned by those who work it." For me, and for millions since 1955, this has always meant a socialist South Africa.

In the Trades Hall during the debate, I argued that the Freedom Charter could only be implemented buy action, that signatures on petitions were inadequate to force the state to concede freedom. While I was speaking the South African Police broke up the meeting and seized my written notes for my speech.

Later when I was on trial with Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo in the Treason Trail, this speech was one of the major exhibits used by the state to try to hang us.

I have just received this speech from South Africa after 33 years and reading it again after more than three decades I can see how relevant it still is. I have been shocked, but not surprised, by the retreat of the ANC leadership from the Freedom Charter, which is clearly demonstrated now by the proposed 'guidelines for a port-apartheid constitution' which have been produced by the ANC.

Our Constitution, our Freedom Charter, for three decades a beacon for the oppressed masses of downtrodden black people, is being abandoned by the exiled leadership. It is not surprising because we had to struggle all through 1955 to get them to accept it in the first place.

I defended the Freedom Charter than as Secretary of the Iron and Steel Union and Secretary of the White City, Jabavu branch of the African National Congress and what I said in the Trades Hall, Johannesburg is as relevant today as it was 33 years ago.

"One million signatures alone are not enough. Action is the correct dose. Our one million signatures must be one million blows, that will shake apartheid a million times to pieces and bring South Africa and its enslaved people a million years of prosperity and freedom….

"It is all very well to say: 'The state shall recognise the right and the duty of all to work, and to draw unemployment benefits,' but it is quite a different story to make the state do these things….

"It requires hard practical work and sacrifice of the noblest order. One must be prepared to clash with the state, namely the police, and if the struggle assumes very large countrywide dimensions one will clash even with the armed forces. That is the test we must pass before there can be work and security…

"The working class understands. The working class is ready. The necessary conditions have arisen. Time is becoming more and more opportune." [Treason Trial Transcript, Witwatersrand University, pages 7577-8428]

The leadership in exile may be disheartened after many blows. They have capitulated believing that the Botha regime is too strong. The workers inside South Africa will not accept it. I am heartened by a letter from a Johannesburg worker printed in the August 25th South African Weekly Mail, headed 'ANC neglecting workers' in which the worker writes: ("the proposed constitution). In practical terms it offers workers nothing that they have not won for themselves over the last twenty years within the framework of apartheid capitalism…It is no accident that the document is welcomed by the representatives of big capital like Zach De Beer"

PW Botha's government tried to claw back the gains this worker refers to when they tried to force through the Labour Bill, three months ago.

From the 6th to 8th June, three million workers in a general strike used their industrial muscle to say No! They have not allowed Botha to take back their hard won rights and they will not allow the ANC leadership in exile to abandon our Freedom Charter.

Articles by or about Nimrod