In the 1952 Defiance Campaign, the ANC mobilized thousands of ordinary people to protest unjust laws by deliberately and publicly breaking some of those laws. That campaign energized the movement, causing ANC membership to jump from 7,000 to 100,000. The expanded movement against apartheid needed a charter or document that would spell out what the people wanted and represent a transition from simple protest of government actions to affirmation of a positive vision of how to change the country.

To help develop a charter, the ANC organized a listening campaign in early 1955. Fifty thousand volunteers spread out across the country to talk with people about their political hopes for South Africa. Based on these interviews, plus thousands of written submissions, the ANC and several other groups drew up the Freedom Charter. On June 26 of that year, 3,000 delegates came together to approve it. Albert Luthuli, president of the ANC at the time, wrote that the Freedom Charter was intended “to give a flesh and blood meaning, in the South African setting, to such words as democracy, freedom, liberty.”

As the meeting was taking place, the police surrounded the site and forced people to give their names and to be photographed.

The Freedom Charter is considered the founding document of a free South Africa. It forms the basis for the bill of rights included at the beginning of the country’s 1996 constitution 30 years later.

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;

that our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality;

that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities;

that only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief;

And therefore, we, the people of South Africa, black and white together equals, countrymen and brothers adopt this Freedom Charter;

And we pledge ourselves to strive together, sparing neither strength nor courage, until the democratic changes here set out have been won.

The People Shall Govern!

Every man and woman shall have the right to vote for and to stand as a candidate for all bodies which make laws;

All people shall be entitled to take part in the administration of the country;

The rights of the people shall be the same, regardless of race, colour or sex;

All bodies of minority rule, advisory boards, councils and authorities shall be replaced by democratic organs of self-government.

All National Groups Shall have Equal Rights!

There shall be equal status in the bodies of state, in the courts and in the schools for all national groups and races;

All people shall have equal right to use their own languages, and to develop their own folk culture and customs;

All national groups shall be protected by law against insults to their race and national pride;

The preaching and practice of national, race or colour discrimination and contempt shall be a punishable crime;

All apartheid laws and practices shall be set aside.

The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth!

The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people;

The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole;

All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people;

All people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions.

The Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who 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;

The state shall help the peasants with implements, seed, tractors and dams to save the soil and assist the tillers;

Freedom of movement shall be guaranteed to all who work on the land;

All shall have the right to occupy land wherever they choose;

People shall not be robbed of their cattle, and forced labour and farm prisons shall be abolished.

All Shall be Equal Before the Law!

No-one shall be imprisoned, deported or restricted without a fair trial; No-one shall be condemned by the order of any Government official;

The courts shall be representative of all the people;

Imprisonment shall be only for serious crimes against the people, and shall aim at re-education, not vengeance;

The police force and army shall be open to all on an equal basis and shall be the helpers and protectors of the people;

All laws which discriminate on grounds of race, colour or belief shall be repealed.

All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights!

The law shall guarantee to all their right to speak, to organise, to meet together, to publish, to preach, to worship and to educate their children;

The privacy of the house from police raids shall be protected by law;

All shall be free to travel without restriction from countryside to town, from province to province, and from South Africa abroad;

Pass Laws, permits and all other laws restricting these freedoms shall be abolished.

There Shall be Work and Security!

All who work shall be free to form trade unions, to elect their officers and to make wage agreements with their employers;

The state shall recognise the right and duty of all to work, and to draw full unemployment benefits;

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;

Miners, domestic workers, farm workers and civil servants shall have the same rights as all others who work;

Child labour, compound labour, the tot system and contract labour shall be abolished.

The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!

The government shall discover, develop and encourage national talent for the enhancement of our cultural life;

All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands;

The aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace;

Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit;

Adult illiteracy shall be ended by a mass state education plan;

Teachers shall have all the rights of other citizens;

The colour bar in cultural life, in sport and in education shall be abolished.

There Shall be Houses, Security and Comfort!

All people shall have the right to live where they choose, be decently housed, and to bring up their families in comfort and security;

Unused housing space to be made available to the people;

Rent and prices shall be lowered, food plentiful and no-one shall go hungry;

A preventive health scheme shall be run by the state;

Free medical care and hospitalisation shall be provided for all, with special care for mothers and young children;

Slums shall be demolished, and new suburbs built where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, creches and social centres;

The aged, the orphans, the disabled and the sick shall be cared for by the state;

Rest, leisure and recreation shall be the right of all:

Fenced locations and ghettoes shall be abolished, and laws which break up families shall be repealed.

There Shall be Peace and Friendship!

South Africa shall be a fully independent state which respects the rights and sovereignty of all nations;

South Africa shall strive to maintain world peace and the settlement of all international disputes by negotiation — not war;

Peace and friendship amongst all our people shall be secured by upholding the equal rights, opportunities and status of all;

The people of the protectorates Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland shall be free to decide for themselves their own future;1

The right of all peoples of Africa to independence and self-government shall be recognised, and shall be the basis of close co-operation.

Let all people 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 LIBERTY2

Citations

  • 1 : The three protectorates are mentioned here because a 1903 agreement between the British and South African governments provided that South Africa could one day take control of these territories if the British government agreed. The people of all three territories, together with black South African leaders, vigorously worked for decades to prevent this. In the 1960s, the three gained full independence as Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland.
  • 2 : “The Freedom Charter” ( June 26, 1955), South African History Online website. Reproduced by permission.

Connection Questions

  1. Three thousand delegates heard this document spoken aloud on that day in 1955. Read the Freedom Charter out loud, with various people reciting different portions of it, if possible. What difference does it make to hear the text this way?
  2. Before drafting the Freedom Charter, ANC activists went on a listening campaign across South Africa to ask people about their hopes and dreams for the country. What is the value of a listening tour? If you were to talk to people in your community, what would you hear about the meaning of democracy? Of equality? What might people tell you about their aspirations for their own country?
  3. As you read the Freedom Charter, what words and phrases stand out? Does the Freedom Charter focus on the needs of Africans? According to the charter, what specific benefits and laws are needed in order to achieve democracy—freedom as well as equality? What is the tone of the document?
  4. The section that begins with the heading “The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth!” has been controversial in South Africa. Some people read this statement as supporting socialism, while others read it as more ambiguous, simply stating that everyone should benefit from the nation’s wealth. Why do you think the drafters of the Freedom Charter highlighted this as one of ten key statements in the charter? Given that whites controlled almost all wealth, including land and minerals, what would you want to include in this section?
  5. Look at the Freedom Charter above and relate it to to South Africa’s constitution in Chapter 4. How are the ideas in the Freedom Charter incorporated into the constitution?

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