Programme Director; The President of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Mr Zev Krengel; Executive Mayor of the City of Johannesburg, Cllr. Parks Tau; Mr Leon Levy; The South African Jewish Board of Deputies; Distinguished Guests; Comrades and Friends; Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today on the subject of the 60th Anniversary of the Freedom Charter.
Both at the level of historical value and political philosophy, the Freedom Charter’s importance subsists in its advancement of the human agenda. That in itself elevates the Freedom Charter to the level of some of the politically seminal documents in modern history.
At the risk of drawing the long bow, one could argue that at least at a symbolic level, the Freedom Charter ranks alongside such documents as the Magna Carta (the Great Charter), a political statement that revolutionised the character of Great Britain, locking its future trajectory into a political rationality that would change the cause of its history even as it impacted further afield.
However, what levels off the Freedom Charter with documents such as the Magna Carta, which precede it both in time sequence as well as the depth and breadth of the historic influence, is that the former is a product of popular participation.
Indeed, that it is the product of all classes, ethnic and racial groups, religious affiliations, gender and geographic representation, equally impassioned by the same moral vision, makes it a historically unique coinage.
Most historic documents that heralded a new era in human affairs were the mental labours of those born to the purple, in a manner of speaking. This would include philosophers, scholars, the clergy, the barons, the aristocrats, and many others from the upper crust of society.
The Freedom Charter is an inclusively shared vision whose abiding value as a formative document carves its place in historical monumentality.
What makes the Freedom Charter an iconic document is its projection of the notion of justice as the inter-generational political imperative. The Magna Carta, as were many religious, philosophical and political discourses before and after, similarly revolved around justice as the deepest yearning of the human soul.
For the purposes of our gathering tonight I wish to reflect on the preamble of the Freedom Charter, as it is foundational to the democratic vision that defines post-apartheid South Africa.
The Freedom Charter’s preamble becomes all the more cardinal when one considers that it sets out the ideal political state most desirable for us as a people. Looked at this way, the Freedom Charter is a politically constitutive document in that it prescribes for a particular form of human society, on the strength of its exalted moral authority.
What then, does this preamble say? The Preamble reads: (quote)
‘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.’
In seeking to understand the meaning of the Freedom Charter’s preamble today it is instructive to first explore, if only briefly, the historical context that necessitated its emergence in the first instance. In this exercise the aim is not so much to rehash the historical process by sharing a descriptive picture of the process leading up to the drawing up of the Freedom Charter. That much is common knowledge.
Of importance is revisiting the rationale for this historical episode, the better to sharpen our understanding of the Freedom Charter’s key injunctions in post-apartheid South Africa.
While historical detail may be all too cumbersome at times, that should not dissuade us from pruning the historical hedge for context. The historical context serves as a catalytic mechanism which enables succeeding generations to cultivate a discerning mind into what has shaped current reality.
To paraphrase Hegel, what history teaches is this: that people have never learned anything from history. In itself this observation makes a comprehensive, three-dimensional and yet dispassionate reading of history all the more pivotal to connecting the present with the past in a coherent form that elevates human understanding.
In this regard, historical imperatives compel one to preface one’s approach in this address with singling out the role of the African National Congress (ANC) as a prime mover that wrought the incipient contours of non-racial consciousness embodied in the Freedom Charter. Granted, the Freedom Charter is the product of multiple political formations who shared a common vision about the future of our nation in the face of debilitating political oppression.
These formations included the ANC, the Congress of Democrats, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured People’s Organisation as well as the South African Congress of Trade Unions. Subsequently known as the Congress Movement or Alliance, these forces rallied behind the ANC after its banning, drawing sustenance from the cohesive philosophy of the Freedom Charter.
As such the Freedom Charter is ultimately the collective imagination of multiple progressive forces ranged against systemic racism who, as an alternative, posited alternative ontological possibilities.
Yet of all these formations the ANC had been the representative of the biggest section of the people of South Africa, and therefore the most potent force. History will also credit the ANC on another level. The ANC was formed as a nationalist organisation, to unite and represent the African people, who had been left out of the body polity. Similarly, during this historical period the African continent was steeped in heroic nationalist struggles for freedom from European colonialisation.
South Africa, unlike many other African societies, was a nation that had drawn to its shores many different nationalities from all corners of the world. For one thing, the discovery of mineral resources such as gold and diamond was among prospects that attracted some of these waves of migrations. For another, the global political environment of the period marked by religious and political persecutions entered South Africa into the list of ideal destinations for many.
Modernisation and the state formation in our country stem from these socio-political and economic developments. Unfortunately, this also spawned greed, which expressed itself in racial oppression. In turn racial oppression was defined by political domination, economic exploitation and social discrimination.
By definition, the anti-colonial struggle had a racial character, driven as it was by an emerging ideology of African nationalism in the face of white European domination. It is against this background that the historical provenance of the progressive and indeed humanist nationalism of the ANC is thrown in bold relief. On closer inspection one sees the ANC evolving in opposite ways to the popular sea of Africanist consciousness engulfing the African continent.
Partly this explains the grounds for the break away from the ANC of what would be known as the Pan-Africanist Congress when the former espoused the key tenets of the Freedom Charter contained in the preamble, which says that: ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white…’.
Yet, as the abiding legacy of the Freedom Charter testifies, the non-racial outlook that the ANC developed as a result of its sophisticated theorisation about the nature of the South African state would prove enduring. In retrospect, it is clear that it was a precocious outlook grounded in superior philosophical claims.
With this in mind our focus should now turn to the character of the ANC’s political theory regarding the apartheid society and related to that, the future of post-apartheid society.
The ANC benefited from the long historical sweep that included the Satyagraha principle of Mahatma Ghandi, the African People’s Organisation under the leadership of Abdullah Abdurahman, individuals who studied abroad, Marxist activists at the turn of the century and other influences. All these influences shaped the nascent consciousness of the ANC in ways that disposed it to the expressly non-racial cast that would emerge at the time of the Freedom Charter.
To this extent, a case could be made that the historical environment percolated non-racialism into ANC consciousness.
Interestingly, the formation of the ANC Youth League in the early 1940s saw an emerging radical Africanism represented, among others, by no less a figure than the young Nelson Mandela himself.
Yet with time even the radical but exclusionary Youth League nationalists would mature into non-racial outlook with a cutting-edge understanding of the South African political character. They would, in turn, be counted among the hardened devotees of the ascendant non-racialist thought in the ANC.
In sum, the theoretical justification underlying the Freedom Charter was that whereas the geographic territory known as South Africa belonged to the indigenous Khoisan people and Africans, modern day South Africa was the product of the labours of all who had made South Africa their home.
This theory therefore posited antithetical political and moral perspective to that espoused and enforced by the racist regime. Thus the Freedom Charter was not a document seeking revenge for the historical injustices visited upon the oppressed South Africans. To the contrary, it was a document that envisaged the unity of the South African people in a unitary state.
In the final analysis what made the Freedom Charter a morally acclaimed political statement universally appealing to the majority of South Africans, especially from the section of the oppressed, was its humanist political and moral claims.
As we have seen, the preamble of the Freedom Charter itself suffices to explain these impeccable starting points that put the human person at the centre of political existence irrespective of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, class or historical origins.
In spirit and substance, the Freedom Charter is anchored on and moves from a human-centric angle. Against this background, what is most logical to ask more than two decades after the defeat of the racist regime is whether the preamble of the Freedom Charter comports with the unfolding South African realities.
Do South Africans feel that post-apartheid South Africa belongs to all of us, black and white? While I cannot presume to provide the answer to this weighty question given the diversity of South Africans and their different positioning, I can share my understanding of what the drafters of the Freedom Charter meant for a post-apartheid landscape.
While my input on this score is neither sufficient nor authoritative, I am certain it will nevertheless make possible extrapolations about the current period in South Africa.
At an abstract level, South Africa belongs to all those who have embraced it as their country. What this means is that no one is more South African than the other. To belong is to have an unconditional sense of belonging.
Conceptually, this comes down to an inclusive form of nationalism, steeped in common values that appeal to all the people of our land within the framework of our system of democracy. The preamble to South Africa’s constitution resonates stirringly with that of the Freedom Charter.
However, this may be the necessary but by no means sufficient condition for all South Africans to feel that they belong. What makes people feel attached to their country and to each other is an inter-generational, all-inclusive nationalism manifested on the social, economic and political planes.
An inclusive form of nationalism is framed by a sense of social cohesion not just at the level of rhetoric but in practical terms. National events or holidays that speak to our history should draw all South Africans to the celebration of such events. Such events should evince neither party political bias nor ethnic or racial connotations. Instead, historical and national events should override our group differences even as they cement a common sense of nationhood.
An inclusive form of nationalism is the highest form of social cohesion where what unites us is much stronger than what divides us. There has to be imperatives that supplant our historically pre-defined identities and artificially constructed consciousness. It is patently possible to be a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic, multi-vocal society and still be a united people within the context of shared nationhood, unencumbered by the deadweight of particularist nationalism spawned by the past.
Indeed our past need not imprison us. Our differences in appearance and outlook on life need not equal enmity or reflexive discrimination. Ironically, in spite of apartheid social engineering South Africans have over the years seen an evolution of cultural hybridity consisting of all elements of its diverse people. We have to consciously work to cement these commonalities, which are in reality rooted in our historically co-extensive social space.
At a deeper level such instinctual South African nationalism boils down to the dignity and worth of the human person. Nelson Mandela and his generation symbolised this form of nationalism in word and in deed. It remains our challenge today to interrogate our commitment to this grandest ideal that valorises unity as the basis of the development of the human spirit.
At the same time we are called upon to understand this transformative nationalism in the context of history that has shaped our current socio-political landscape. It is not and will not be easy.
Full and inclusive citizenship in modern democracy is predicated on economic well-being that enables a citizen to enjoy meaningful life. Short of economic well-being, political rights become nominal and a pro forma state that induces cognitive dissonance in ordinary South Africans who bear the brunt of history.
Full citizenship, an inclusive society, presupposes fairness and justice in the distribution of economic gains.
This is the central feature of post-apartheid South Africa which flies in the face of both the defining philosophy and spirit of the Freedom Charter. While this may be the concern of government of the day, the ascendant moral framework attendant to the historical import of the Freedom Charter behoves all of us, private citizens, civil society and indeed big business more importantly, to equally embrace this responsibility to see the goals of this document through.
South Africa is a developing country with limited resources yet a monumental task to effect social transformation to give full meaning to the notion of full citizenship to its entire people persists.
Because change is pain leadership becomes a hectic exercise that calls for the Wisdom of Solomon, or in our case, Nelson Mandela. Those who have benefited from the past need to also understand that for as long as economic inequalities define our social landscape we cannot yet speak of South Africa belonging to all who live in it. No less a figure than Chief Rabbie Saks has contended that ‘change has become part of the texture of life itself, and there are few things harder to bear than constant flux and uncertainty.’
Such high level of consciousness enables both sides to acknowledge the long shadow of the past over the present and the commensurate need to fade it away. All of us have the duty to understand that without including a broad cross-section of society in the project of social transformation within the framework of commonly embraced moral vision very little change can and indeed will happen.
During the course of this social transformation mistakes happen that detract from the nobility of the cause. Among others, economic greed, the desire to accumulate wealth and enrich ourselves in cynical ways, is taking a hand in the matter.
During this process of national reconstruction and development those tasked with the responsibility to bring about social change and lead the nation to a clearly defined moral vision cannot afford to falter.
I would argue that those of us charged to run the affairs of the state have the moral obligation, at the very least, to respect this responsibility by being as irreproachable as humanly possible. From this viewpoint, all South Africans, black and white, have the onerous task to be a critical mass of moral authority ensuring that the nobility of the Freedom Charter is not compromised today, tomorrow or anytime in the future.
I would argue that inclusive, instinctual nationalism means the ability to give vent to our views, no matter how critical, with no self-consciousness to our race, tribe, religion or gender.
Before concluding, let me take this opportunity to congratulate members of the Jewish community who sacrificed so much for the liberation of South Africa. Most of these illustrious individuals made a sterling contribution to the Freedom Charter itself.
It goes without saying that all those Jewish souls were men and women who had learnt from history. Motivated by the long history of anti-Semitism, their consciousness would not hear of human oppression in any way, shape or form.
Among others, the list includes Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Ronnie Kasrils, Hilda Bernstein, Harold Wolpe, Eli Weinberg, Dennis Goldberg, Albie Sachs, Wolfie Kodesh, Arthur Goldreich, Ray Alexander Simons, Benjamin Turok, Leon Levy, Raymond Suttner, Rowley Arenstein, Max and Audrey Coleman and many others.
Through their efforts we are reminded that denial of justice to a specific people knows no geographic boundaries. The holocaust, pogroms, genocides, ethnocide, massacres, Trans-Saharan slavery, the Dark Passage and apartheid are among shameful episodes in human history. Such demented human acts detract from the inherent grandeur of the notion of being human.
Equally debasing the human soul are mass starvations, poverty, malnutrition, environmental degradation, illiteracy, racism, pigmentocracy, sexism, religious discrimination, and, generally, the racially defined state of under-development that robs a huge section of humanity of its innate right to exist to the fullest extent within the strictures of the human condition.
Most shockingly, these abominations still persist under our noses at the time when the human species has reached the very height of social development imaginable, not least in the realm of consciousness.
I wish to call on all South Africans, not least the Jewish community, following on the example of the historical figures mentioned above, to be an active part of the process of reconstruction and development of South Africa.
My limited research tells me that the Torah, which is among the holiest books in Judaism, is a moral blueprint on how to live a good and honest life.
Not only is it a book about laws governing a person’s relationship with God, but it is also about laws relating to how to treat other people. It addresses fundamental values such as the sanctity of life, justice and equality, kindness and generosity, the value of education and social responsibility.
Interestingly, these are the values the Freedom Charter champions. In this regard I am confident that the Jewish community will continue in the vein of the above names to make this a better country for all its people and posterity.
In conclusion, let me emphasise that the Freedom Charter is an honest attempt by inspired masses of humanity on the southern tip of Africa to fire up elevated forms of human consciousness with the object of raising all South Africans, the oppressor and the oppressed alike, above the dehumanising level of racial oppression.
In its simplicity, the Freedom Charter valorises our humanity through affirming universal principles that define modern history.
By juxtaposing its exalted, democratic moral claims to those of the prevailing racial oppression, it was able to undermine the whole edifice of apartheid racial ideology.
This makes the Freedom Charter a product of the creative human imagination responding to the imperatives of a definite historical period.
In its expansive conception of the human agenda, the Freedom Charter projected the notion of justice into the post-apartheid future, envisaging the human society defined by some of the noblest principles of the modern era; liberty, equality and fraternity. It posited the notion of justice as the meta-historical override, upholding the irreducible ideal of equality as an inter-generational imperative.
Looking back at the 60 years since the adoption of this iconic document, we cannot but marvel at the resilience of the human spirit.
I thank you for your kind attention.