Volume , Number 0
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Journal of the 18th Year
Matthew m. Kavanagh
War & Peace
Nicolas J.S. Davies
Eleanor J. Bader
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South Africa’s Freedom Charter at 50
J osh Bafana Mhlanga was only 11, but he remembers the excitement and the promises of the new South Africa born after the 1994 fall of apartheid. Now, as he looks around his neighborhood, he is furious with the African National Congress (ANC) government. They have returned to Kliptown, Soweto to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a founding document of the anti-apartheid struggle, the Freedom Charter. But Josh and his family still live in poverty in this half-century-old black community of corrugated metal shacks without secure access to water or electricity. “They say it’s a Freedom Charter, but to us it is a Freedom Cheater,” says Mhlanga. “It has changed nothing in Kliptown.”
Today’s international image of South Africa is of a nation transformed. With a black-led government, one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, and a burgeoning black bourgeoisie, South Africa is considered by many to be an icon of social and economic success. South Africa has one of the highest Gross Domestic Products per person on the continent, accounts for 35 percent of the entire economy of Sub-Saharan Africa, and has over 25,000 black millionaires.
the same time, South Africa is an example of the failures of the
neoliberal economic model. It has perhaps the world’s most
unequal economy. While the millionaires and the richest 10 percent
account for almost half of the nation’s consumption, nearly
a quarter of the population still lives on less than $2 a day. Government
figures suggest a quarter of all South Africans are unemployed.
In urban black areas like Soweto well over half of residents are
For some, this other side to South Africa comes from the limits of how quickly change can happen. But many in South Africa’s emerging social movements suggest that the position of South Africa’s poor and working class people is a predictable outcome of the ANC government’s neoliberal economic policies, reflecting a failure of the Freedom Charter.
According to Dennis Brutus, an activist and poet who was part of drafting the Freedom Charter, “For a privileged segment both, Black and white, things have gone very well under the Charter. But for the mass of people, if you look around Kliptown, you see the decay, the poverty, the lack of housing, the beggars in the street.”
“My criticism is not the slowness of delivery on the Charter,” says Brutus. “I’m saying the ANC has changed direction. At the time of the Freedom Charter it was committed to serving the people, now it is committed to serving the corporations.” It is a criticism that mirrors a much broader debate about the path of social change and development in South Africa and globally.
The Freedom Charter
B egun in 1954 in Kliptown and unveiled a year later, the Freedom Charter was the product of a coalition Congress of groups which were each to represent a different “race” in South Africa including African, Colored, Indian, and progressive whites. Taken up in the 1980s by the United Democratic Front (UDF), an internal group that included the then-banned ANC, the Charter was used as an organizing tool that some saw as radical.
Indeed, the Charter demands that: “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 well-being of the people.”
But many argued at the time that the “united front” approach of the Charter failed to address the economic change that was really necessary to undo the economic disenfranchisement of poor South Africans. They point, for example, to the effort by those writing the Charter to include the National Party—the creators of the apartheid system—as evidence that the Charter was meant to appease rather than create deeper change. Like many political documents, the Charter is largely ambiguous. For example, while it seems to call for nationalization of industry at points, in the same breath it demands free markets, saying, “All people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture, and to enter all trades...”
Makoma Lekalakala, an organizer with Jubilee South Africa, was involved in left student and labor groups in the 1980s that saw the Freedom Charter as a document designed for co-optation. “I see the Freedom Charter as the document that has led us to the neoliberal environment we are in today,” says Lekalakala. “It was a sellout document because it did nothing to put Africans as the owners of South Africa.”
At the time, Lekalakala and other activists who questioned the Freedom Charter were attacked by the ANC-aligned Congress movement. People were denounced, their houses were burned, and people were killed by being “neck- laced” (burning tires hung around the neck). Lekalakala sees parallels to today. “The Charter represented intolerance in the past and today the social movements that are rising up and saying ‘Lets have basic services like electricity’ or ‘Lets have land’ are being repressed.”
The Charter Today
T he ANC government has celebrated the Charter as a foundation of those transformations that have taken place since 1994. “The people shall govern,” says the Charter and South Africa has seen the dismantling of legal segregation, the emergence of political freedoms, and the introduction of universal suffrage. Just this year, after failing to gain electoral victory in the multi-racial electorate, the successor to the National Party folded into the ANC.
But to visit Kliptown now is to see what has not been the priority of the “unity” government. As the ANC was holding massive public celebrations and the parliament was symbolically “sitting” in Kliptown for a day, a coalition of activist groups from poor black communities held a “people’s inspection.” They brought journalists and activists through the neighborhood to show them the absence of a sewage system, the mud tracks that still pass for streets, and the paraffin people still use for light. They talked about the deaths—from communicable diseases because of the lack of water, from respiratory disease because people must heat with coal and wood, and from the violence that many argue is the predictable result of a community where unemployment and under- education are the norm.
“We are still using the buckets to relieve ourselves,” said Mhlanga, a 22-year-old resident of Kliptown. “You don’t have light. You can’t study. When it is 6:00 PM, you have to be in the house or else you are risking your life. Every single day, every single night you hear gunshots. We don’t have streets, it’s still gravel. If you buy shoes today, after two months they are gone and you have to buy other shoes. It’s like we are still living in that apartheid era where they say ‘They are blacks, they must live there, and nobody must take care of them.’”
In a second slap in the face to those ignored for so long, the government is building some houses a short distance away, but under substandard conditions. “The white apartheid government built small four-room houses and the ANC was quick to say that they were inadequate for people to have good lives,” says Virginia Magwaza of the Anti-Privatization Forum. Standing in front of a dense row of tiny houses, she describes the houses the ANC government is building: “One room, one window, one door, a toilet, and a basin, that’s it. The toilet plumbing is connected to the sink, so when the toilet blocks the sewage comes up into the kitchen.”
Kliptown is not the only community where the ANC’s promises of a “better life for all” have not been fulfilled. Under the original Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) promised by the ANC during the 1994 elections, basic services like water and electricity, along with housing and land redistribution, topped the list of priorities. After democratization the country was flooded with “advisors” from the World Bank and Washington consulting firms.
“There is a clear point of transition,” says Brutus. “They abandoned the RDP in 1996. It was thrown out the window and they adopted another doctrine called GEAR [Growth, Employment and Redistribution] all of which is focused on keeping the corporations happy at the expense of the people. The people become the victims of a new ideology, which is aimed at satisfying the World Bank, IMF, WTO. People like [Finance Minister] Trevor Manuel actually serve in the offices of the World Bank and the IMF. They’re supposed to be working for the people of South Africa, but instead they are more interested in serving corporate interests.”
The result has been the privatization of basic services, from electricity and water to education and healthcare, and a dramatic failure to redistribute land and wealth. In 1994, for example, 87 percent of South African land was in the hands of the 12 percent white minority. When the ANC came to power in 1994, the government promised that 30 percent of commercial farmland would be in the hands of blacks within 10 years. In reality just 3.3 percent was transferred through the “willing-buyer, willing-seller” program pushed by the World Bank.
A mong those voicing their displeasure at the “freedom” they have gained are the affiliated community groups of the Anti-Privatization Forum. For several years people in poor communities like Soweto and Orange Farm have been organizing and fighting cut-offs of electric service to poor residents who cannot afford to pay the rates demanded by the commercialized electricity company.
Most recently, the struggle has been over water and the contracting of Johannesburg’s water management to a subsidiary of the French water conglomerate Suez. The poorest residents use only a tiny fraction of Johannesburg’s water, but have seen a 30 percent increase in water prices while the industries and suburbanites using most of the water have seen only an 8 to 12 percent increase. Of even bigger concern is how Suez has also solved the “problem” of overdue/unpaid water bills in poor communities by installing pre-paid water meters. Besides hiking the price to small consumers even further, these meters mean that those who run out of money for water units may be too poor to do things like bathe, care for the sick, or put out a house fire (as in one Soweto case where children died). In a striking example of the affects of the lack of water, not long after Suez took over Johannesburg’s water supply, an outbreak of cholera in the township of Alexandra affected thousands of poor families and required drastic government intervention.
“Johannesburg Water says that there is a culture of non-payment, but the reason people don’t pay is because they cannot afford it; people are not working,” says Jabu Molobela, a member of the Phiri Concerned Residents Committee, an APF affiliate. “With pre-paid meters people won’t owe anything to the company, it’s true, but they won’t have water either.”
The government points to its provision of 6 kiloliters of free water (about 1,500 gallons) per household, per month. But for the average household of 8 people this provides each person with about a bucket of water (25 liters) daily— the bare minimum for basic survival, according to the World Health Organization, which says 100 liters is needed for good health. Those with larger families, or who perhaps need more water to care for one of the 370,000 people who die each year of AIDS, must cough up more money or go without.
People are fighting back and implementing the Freedom Charter in their own ways. For years members of the APF have combined public protest and legal challenges with direct action through reconnecting themselves to the electricity grid in “Operation Khanyisa” (“Light-Up”). Faced with new prepaid water meters, poor township residents have mounted Operation Vulamanzi (Water for All). In an act of direct defiance to the government and Suez, residents have been destroying pre-paid water meters and bypassing privatized “control measures” to re-route the water piping and “decommodify” this most basic of resources.
“We are resisting the installation of pre-paid water and reconnecting the community because no one can survive without water,” says Molo- bela. “They say it’s illegal, but we say it’s illegal for them to disconnect water. Each and every human being has a right to sufficient and clean water. We want it to be managed by the public and not by private companies because they are not going to deliver.”
Increasingly in the new South Africa the right of all to “trade where they choose” under the Freedom Charter seems to have trumped the promise that “slums shall be demolished and new suburbs built where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, crèches, and social centers.”
But, says Makoma Lekalakala, “I think the fact that the government is pulling the Freedom Charter out of the archives is an indication that the social movements are having an effect against the neo- liberal program that the government in power is pursuing.”
As the ANC declares to the world this year the success of the Freedom Charter, many South Africans are asking themselves whether perhaps they should be able to expect more when it comes to freedom.
Matthew M. Kavanagh is an activist and educator working with several social movement organizations in Johannesburg and Soweto, South Africa.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
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HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
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MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.