The Freedom Charter in South Africa

Document Calls for Equality, Freedom, and Justice

The Monument to the Charter

B. Bahr / Getty Images

The Freedom Charter was a document ratified at the Congress of the People held at Kliptown, Soweto, South Africa in June 1955 by the various member bodies of the Congress Alliance. The policies set out in the Charter included a demand for a multi-racial, democratically elected government, equal opportunities, the nationalization of banks, mines, and heavy industries, and a redistribution of land. Africanist members of the ANC rejected the Freedom Charter and broke away to form the Pan Africanist Congress.

In 1956, following extensive searches of various homes and confiscation of documents, 156 people involved in the creation and ratification of the Freedom Charter were arrested for treason. This was almost the entire executive of the African National Congress (ANC), Congress of Democrats, South African Indian Congress, Coloured People's Congress, and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (collectively known as the Congress Alliance). They were charged with "high treason and a countrywide conspiracy to use violence to overthrow the present government and replace it with a communist state." The punishment for high treason was death.

The Freedom Charter and Clauses

"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

Here is a synopsis of each of the clauses, which list various rights and stances in detail.

  • The People Shall Govern: This point included universal voting rights and the rights to run for office and serve on governing boards regardless of race, color, and sex.
  • All National Groups Shall Have Equal Rights: Apartheid laws will be set aside, and all groups will be able to use their own language and customs without discrimination.
  • The People Shall Share in the Country's Wealth: Minerals, banks, and monopoly industries would become government-owned for the good of the people. All would be free to ply any trade or profession, but industry and trade would be controlled for the well-being of the whole people. 
  • The Land Shall Be Shared Among Those Who Work It: There will be land redistribution with assistance to peasants to farm it and an end to racial restrictions on ownership and freedom of movement. 
  • All Shall Be Equal Before the Law: This gives people rights to a fair trial, representative courts, fair imprisonment, as well as integrated law enforcement and military. There will be no discrimination by law for race, color, or beliefs.
  • All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights: People are granted the freedom of speech, assembly, the press, religion, and education. This addresses protection from police raids, freedom to travel, and abolishment of pass laws.
  • There Shall Be Work and Security: There will be equal pay for equal work for all races and genders. People have the right to form unions. There were workplace rules adopted including a 40-hour work week, unemployment benefits, minimum wage, and leave. This clause eliminated child labor and other abusive forms of labor.
  • The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall Be Opened: This clause addresses free education, access to higher education, ending adult illiteracy, promoting culture, and ending cultural color bans.
  • There Shall Be Houses, Security and Comfort: This gives the right to decent, affordable housing, free medical care and preventive health, care of the aged, orphans, and disabled.
  • Rest, Leisure and Recreation Shall Be the Right of All.
  • There Shall Be Peace and Friendship: This clause says we should strive for world peace by negotiation and recognition of rights to self-government.

The Treason Trial

At the treason trial in August, 1958, the prosecution attempted to show that the Freedom Charter was a Communist tract and that the only way it could be achieved was by overthrowing the present government. However, the Crown's expert witness on Communism admitted that the Charter was "a humanitarian document that might well represent the natural reaction and aspirations of non-whites to the harsh conditions in South Africa."

The main piece of evidence against the accused was a recording of a speech made by Robert Resha, the Trasvaal Volunteer-in-Chief, which appeared to say that volunteers should be violent when called upon to use violence. During the defense, it was shown that Resha's viewpoints were the exception rather than the rule in the ANC and that the short quote had been taken completely out of context.

The Outcome of the Treason Trial

Within a week of the trail starting, one of the two charges under the Suppression of Communism Act was dropped. Two months later the Crown announced that the whole indictment was being dropped, only to issue a new indictment against 30 people—all members of the ANC.

Chief Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo were released for lack of evidence. Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu (ANC secretary-general) were among the final 30 accused.

On March 29, 1961, Justice FL Rumpff interrupted the defense summation with a verdict. He announced that although the ANC was working to replace the government and had used illegal means of protest during the Defiance Campaign, the Crown had failed to show that the ANC was using violence to overthrow the government, and were therefore not guilty of treason. The Crown had failed to establish any revolutionary intent behind the defendant's actions. Having been found non-guilty, the remaining 30 accused were discharged.

The Ramifications of the Treason Trial

The Treason Trial was a serious blow to the ANC and the other members of the Congress Alliance. Their leadership was imprisoned or banned and considerable costs were incurred. Most significantly, the more radical members of the ANC's Youth League rebelled against the ANC interaction with other races and left to form the PAC.

Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and six others were eventually given a life sentence for treason in 1964 at what is known as the Rivonia Trial.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "The Freedom Charter in South Africa." ThoughtCo, Aug. 5, 2021, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, August 5). The Freedom Charter in South Africa. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "The Freedom Charter in South Africa." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).