The 58th anniversary of the adoption of the Freedom Charter on Wednesday served as a reminder of the ANC’s lead role in organised defiance and tactical, mass based campaigns as part of the struggle against Apartheid. In a well-coordinated operation, the ANC sent out 50,000 volunteers across the country to collect “freedom demands” from the people of South Africa. Thousands of people participated in the campaign, expressing the kind of South Africa they wished to live in. These demands were consolidated into the Freedom Charter and adopted by about 3,000 people who met in Kliptown on 26 June 1955, under the banner of the Congress of the People.
The Congress of the People united all the liberation forces in South Africa (you can see where Mosiuoa Lekota gets his ambitions of a united opposition from) into a non-racial united front known as the Congress Alliance.
Through this highly organised, ground-up campaign, the ANC was able to draw together what the disenfranchised masses ultimately wanted out of the freedom struggle. Their demands included “Land to be given to all landless people”, “Living wages and shorter hours of work” and “Free and compulsory education, irrespective of colour, race or nationality”.
The Freedom Charter provided a blueprint for the liberation forces to work towards to secure total emancipation in South Africa. The charter might now seem quite radical as compared to what the ANC and its allies settled for during the multiparty negotiations before the 1994 elections, but in 1955, it was the expression of what the basic needs were for a non-racial democratic South Africa.
All these activities took place under conditions of deep oppression and harassment by the Apartheid security forces. The police disrupted the meeting on the second day but by this time, the charter had been read to the crowd in full.
Although the Congress of the People was a mass gathering under trying circumstances, there was no chaos or ill discipline. Nevertheless, the congress was denounced as treason by the then government.
Skip ahead 58 years to a democratic South Africa – quite different from what was envisaged in Kliptown, but nevertheless free from the yoke of Apartheid and under the rule of the organisation which led the Congress Alliance. Protest action is now a hallmark of South African society. According to a speech delivered by Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi this week, from 2009 to date, there have been 3,000 service delivery protests. Many of these are extremely violent with damage to property, torching of public buildings and sometimes loss of life.
Many of these protests are led by community activists who are members of the ANC and who yet unable to find outlet for their grievances through party structures. The ANC, which was able to send out 50,000 volunteers in 1955 with no resources and under Apartheid-era restrictions, is now, with a network of structures and as the party in government, unable to tap into the sentiment of its own people.
As a result of the ANC’s inability to sometimes hear its people’s cries, they have to resort to desperate measures. The outbreak of xenophobic attacks in 2008 was one horrific example of what happens when people’s frustrations with service delivery backlogs go unchecked.
In Cape Town, a new phenomenon has developed. It also arises from service delivery frustrations and government not paying heed to the inhumane conditions people live in. The difference, however, is that the city and province is governed by the Democratic Alliance and the form of protest is more aggressive, and is designed to show contempt for the DA’s leaders.
An ANC councillor Loyiso Nkohla and an ANC Youth League member Andile Lili have been at the forefront of the defiance campaign against improper sanitation in informal settlements and the introduction of portable flush toilets. They have found the ultimate weapon to make sure they are not ignored: throwing human waste in public places in front of television cameras.
It took several incidents like these, the final being at Cape Town International Airport, a national key point, for the ANC to speak out categorically against it. “In the harshest possible terms, the ANC condemns such behaviour and calls for a halt for such atrocious displays of dissatisfaction, whatever the cause. Such [behaviour] makes a mockery of the right to protest and diminishes the stature of the grievance and the genuine issues that may be raised. Immediately, if there are many members of the ANC or the ANCYL involved in such action, they must desist from this behaviour or face investigation and disciplinary action by the organisation,” ANC national spokesman Jackson Mthembu said.
The ANC in the Western Cape has also disowned their activists. ANC provincial secretary Songezo Mjongile described the latest incident as “the work of lunatics”. “The patience of the ANC is wearing thin on this matter. Disciplinary action is already being taken against Lili and Nkohla. Anyone else found to have been involved will face the full wrath of an ANC disciplinary committee,” Mjongile said, according to the Cape Argus.
Although the ANC is rightly condemning the acts now, the faeces protests are a culmination of a number of factors which the ANC has ignored. The first is ill-discipline in its ranks and the fact that its activists abuse the name of the 101-year-old organisation to conduct all manner of criminal acts. The second is that it has allowed service delivery protests to rage out of hand and often resorts to dealing with them through the might of the police rather than politically.
The third is that the ANC has not called to order its members who feel they have carte blanche to attack the opposition in any manner they feel like, even resorting to the most disgraceful acts. There is no sense of decorum in political engagement and therefore there is a sense that anything goes – even human waste.
Of course people have every right to express their frustrations and protest poor delivery, no matter who is in charge. However, the use of human excrement can never be an acceptable political tool and does not in any way advance the campaign to ensure better sanitation for the poor.
The Apartheid government was the most repulsive of regimes and yet not once did the ANC that led the liberation struggle resort to such outrageous tactics. Those who gathered at Kliptown in 1955 would probably be disappointed to see that the vision they had for a democratic South Africa has not been entirely realised, and that many millions still live in inhumane conditions. But they would certainly be disappointed too that the name of their organisation is associated with such despicable acts. It should have never come to this. DM
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*Proteas, you know we love you. We’d just love you more if you won occasionally...
Ring of Fire as performed by Johnny Cash was actually written by June Carter.