Congress of the People
I was there
30 June 1980
June 25 and 26 1955 are dates indelibly impressed on the minds and hearts of every Congress member who was active at the time. They are the dates of the Congress of the People which was held at Kliptown to discuss and finally adopt the historic Freedom Charter which forms the basis of our policy today. On those two days we witnessed the climax of months of effort on the part of thousands of Congress men and women throughout the country striving for the liberation of their country from the yoke of apartheid. In the Freedom Charter they set out the details of the kind of South African society they wanted to see when the day of liberation dawned.
The Congress of the People was brought about through the efforts of Joint Congress Committees which were established throughout the country comprising the African National Congress, the SA Indian Congress, Coloured People`s Organisation (later the SA Coloured People`s Congress), and the Congress of Democrats – whites who identified with the Congress movement. The SA Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), formed in March 1955, was not yet part of the Joint Consultative Committee, though it passed a resolution of support for the COP campaign at its founding congress and fully associated itself with the Congress Alliance. The South African Communist Party, although reconstituted since 1953, had not yet publicly declared its existence so that, although its members were active in all the Congresses, it did not participate as a separate entity.
Meetings to mobilise the people for the COP and gather in their demands and wishes for incorporation in the Charter were held everywhere – at factories at lunch-time, in the townships, villages and suburbs in the evenings and over weekends. Many of our best speakers had already been banned from attending meetings under the Suppression of Communism Act, so in many places it was left to the second string to fill the gaps, and to do even more because the number of people who could be active publicly was restricted by the bannings. The slogan for the Congress of the People – “a delegate from every town, every suburb, every village” – was what we had in mind, and it was an ideal that came near to 100% fulfilment.
The meetings were held to elect delegates to the Congress and also to put forward the demands of the people for incorporation in the Freedom Charter itself. For this was a document which was intended to be our blueprint for the future South Africa, and it was the aim and hope of all of us that the people of South Africa would take the chance to help create their own future. Day by day as the meetings were held and the resolutions began to roll in it was remarkable to see the similarity of the demands voiced on all sides although not really surprising when one considers that the people everywhere suffered from the same disabilities. The complaint everywhere was first and foremost about the iniquitous pass laws, then about Bantu Education, forced removals, high rents…. Everywhere the people knew that until they had the right to vote they would never have the power to get what they wanted.
Money also had to be collected to send delegates up to the Congress in Kliptown. Our comrades collected money in pennies, in shillings and pounds, from audiences at meetings, from their neighbours, from people in buses and trains. The sight of the dog-eared notes coming in from all over the Western Cape, which was where I worked – hundreds of them brought in by our comrades returning from meetings – was an assurance that our efforts were meeting with a wholehearted response. And Head Office was besieged with bits of paper posted from everywhere in the country setting out the demands of the people.
When the great day of COP was upon us, we set out on our journey to Kliptown, many of us travelling hundreds of miles, wondering what was going to happen. For it was not as if we had been allowed to campaign in peace. Every meeting was watched by the special branch, our organisers were hounded and arrested, documents seized in raids.
Not all the people`s elected delegates were able to reach the congress. Cars and lorries were stopped, contingents held back on one or other pretext until it was too late to continue their journey. Yet in spite of all the harassment and interference, about 3,000 delegates pierced the police cordon and arrived at Kliptown, just outside Johannesburg, where a patch of open ground had been prepared to seat the huge throng. Just imagine the problems of organisation – 3,000 delegates had to be fed and housed. But from every point of view the Congress was an outstanding success. Politically, organisationally, emotionally, it was truly representative of all the people in South Africa – not like that mockery called Parliament in Cape Town! Our Congress of the People really belonged to and spoke for the people of our country, reflecting their aspirations and hopes, their determination and courage, their faith in the future, their ability and inventiveness.
I believe now, as I did then, that the Freedom Charter is a revolutionary document. It lays the foundation for the national democratic revolution, stating in clear and simple terms the demands of the people – demands which cannot be fun filled unless the whole apartheid structure of South Africa as we know it today is overturned. There are some who say the Freedom Charter is out of date because it is 25 years old. Of course nothing is immutable. The Freedom Charter is not immutable, it can be changed if the people want to change it. But Freedom is not out of date, and the people`s demand for freedom has not changed. On the contrary, it has gained in intensity, and led the people to adopt new and more forceful methods to achieve their objective. But that objective is still to destroy the apartheid state and build a new society – and the Freedom Charter still tells us what kind of society we want to see in South Africa. Its words ring as true today as when they were first framed.
But what of the days of the Congress of the People itself, those two days in 1955 when the first real parliament of South Africa was convened? Perhaps one can best compare COP to a festival – except that our business was serious, and except for the presence of the special branch, peering at the delegates through field glasses, taking notes of the speeches, and finally on the second day surrounding the whole gathering with their uniformed police and military men armed with sten guns while the name and address of every delegate was taken down.
So why a festival? As one approached Kliptown (and I and others had driven 1,000 miles to get there), one could see the streams of other delegates arriving – some in cars, some in buses, others in carts or on foot, many carrying banners and wearing colourful national dresses for a gala occasion. At the fenced-in-open. air forum of the congress itself there were banners displayed from all over South Africa – from Natal, East Cape, West Cape and other places. And of course there were many delegates there without display of any sort to protect themselves; they had in fact to pretend they were not there at all. These delegates were mainly from the rural areas, liable to victimisation from employers and police if their presence was discovered. But despite all the intimidation and danger, they were there.
Before the congress started, groups of people were singing freedom songs. When the police staged their invasion on the second day and the delegates found themselves surrounded, the tension was so great that a spark could have set off a conflagration. But it was Ida Mntwana who kept the crowd peaceful by starting the singing of freedom songs from the platform. The buzz of anger died down and the defiant songs of freedom filled the air. The people continued with the business of the congress, and the clauses of the Freedom Charter were discussed and adopted while the police were taking down names.
Meal times were an important feature. We had signs up “soup with meat” and “soup without meat” to cater for the religious scrupples or preferences of the delegates. The police thought these signs had some hidden political significance, and they were later handed in as evidence in the treason trial which was the government`s reply to COP. During these lunch-breaks, we met and mingled with delegates from other centres, and made friendships and forged bonds which have endured to this day and will continue to thrill us throughout our lifetime.
There were a lot of marvellous people at COP and a lot of marvellous people worked to make it a success – ordinary men and women who make South Africa such an exciting place to live in. But I think of all the people with whom I worked for COP, perhaps the most impressive was the late John Mtini. He was a member of the African National Congress, almost 70 years old at that time, but young at heart, with the spirit, enthusiasm and energy of someone 50 years his junior. He lived with his wife in a tiny pondokkie in Elsies River, near Cape Town. Despite ailing health, he never spared himself. When the Congress called, he answered. Inspired by the whole concept of COP, he organised his whole area, and used to come into the office with wads of £1 notes that he had collected to help cover the cost of transport. He himself collected enough money to send 12 people to the Congress. He used to bring in his money with a wonderful smile of satisfaction on his face, thrilled at the response of the people.
The awards of Isitwalandwe, the speeches from the platform, the general atmosphere all contributed to make the week-end of the Congress of the People a truly memorable one. People from all over South Africa had come together, met one another, discussed their common problems, reached their decisions, adopted the Freedom Charter. We had signposted the way to another and better South Africa. COP and the Freedom Charter represented a shattering setback for the government – the time and effort they put into the treason trial showed that. The people had demonstrated they would never accept apartheid, Would never submit, would resist repression, would continue to fight for liberation until final victory was won and South Africa was set free. The Freedom Charter has inspired the people in their struggles throughout the past 25 years, and continues to inspire them.
A Luta Continua!