By Thabo Mbeki
24 June 2005
517 years ago, in 1488, a Portuguese fleet under the command of Bartolomeu Dias stopped at Mossel Bay on its way to India. The sailors came on land to collect fresh water. A group of Khoikhoi saw these goings-on. However, they stood some distance away from these sailors and would not take the gifts they were offered.
They then threw stones at the Portuguese sailors. Dias picked up a crossbow, aimed, and killed one of the Khoi with an arrow. This was the first African in South Africa to be killed by a European. The Khoi who lived around Mossel Bay would not have known that the comrade they lost was but the first martyr in a conflict that only ended 506 years later, in 1994.
Our road to freedom was long and hard. As we travelled along that road, many people lost their lives, as did the first martyr at Mossel Bay. The centuries changed, one following the other, but the bloodletting did not cease. From decade to decade, the conflict spread from the Western Cape until it reached all corners of our country.
The immediate issues over which the people waged specific struggles changed from time to time. Similarly, the forms of struggle changed over the centuries, as conditions in the country changed. Nevertheless, whatever the issue and whatever the form of struggle, at all stages new martyrs joined the first martyr who fell at Mossel Bay in 1488.
The uninterrupted expansion of the list of martyrs was one of the constants in the conflict heralded by the incident at Mossel Bay. The other constant was the essential composition of the belligerent forces that confronted each other in struggle, with none willing to yield or surrender.
This translated into the reality that the conflict that claimed the lives of countless numbers of our people was between the black people of our country on one hand, and the colonial powers and the white minority originating from these countries on the other. Ultimately, the latter became an inalienable part of the South African nation.
For centuries, great disparities in access to military technology, symbolised at Mossel Bay in 1488 by the stones of the Khoi and the crossbows of the Portuguese, decided who would emerge as the victor, and who the vanquished. The reality was that in addition to the crossbows, the Portuguese, like the other European colonisers, had even more superior weapons of war.
That disparity in access to these weapons of war gave the victors the possibility to impose themselves on the majority as the governors and controllers of state power, by virtue of conquest. The victors were to use that power ultimately to produce the legacy of colonialism and apartheid that the new South Africa inherited at its liberation in 1994.
The historical evolution of our country from the first confrontation at Mossel Bay made it inevitable that our country had finally to answer a strategic question of vital importance to all our people. This was about whether it was possible for victor and vanquished to live together in our country in conditions of a stable peace.
In 1909 the British colonial government entered into an agreement with the white settler population of our country, both Boer and Briton, that this stable peace could only be achieved if they united and used their combined might to subjugate the black majority.
This agreement was given legal force through the racist Constitution adopted in 1909 by the all-white South African Convention, and approved by the British Imperial Parliament. That Constitution created the Union of South Africa, whose central defining feature was the institutionalisation of the system of white minority domination.
The constitutional legalisation of the armed victory of the colonisers over the colonised was to continue throughout the 20th century, until the adoption of our Interim Constitution in 1993 at the multi-party (CODESA) negotiations.
Fundamental to the constitutional and legal order that determined how our country was governed during the 85 years from the adoption by the British Parliament of the South Africa Act, 1909, to the adoption of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 200 of 1993, assented to on January 25, 1994, was the proposition and practice of white superiority and domination, and its corollary, black inferiority and subjugation.
In reality, the constitutional, political, economic and social order legalised by the 1909 South Africa Act adopted by the British Parliament represented the ready acceptance of the notion that black and white could never live together in conditions of peace, as equal citizens of one country.
The survival of this social order depended on the forcible maintenance of the relationship of victor and vanquished, based on a system founded on the twin notions of white superiority and black inferiority. In the end, the question how long this social order would last, based as it was on an irreconcilable contradiction, depended more on the strength and resolve of the subjugated, rather than the racist arrogance and might of the dominant.
Though vanquished and subjugated, the masses of our people never accepted that they had surrendered or agreed that they were inferior. Understanding this, the victors and the dominant recognised the reality that they had to deploy even more force to guarantee the permanence of their victory and domination.
They had to ensure that at all times they enjoy the advantage of preponderant force within any equation representing the balance of power. To achieve this, they had to use the force at their disposal. And the more they did this, the more intense became the conviction among the vanquished that only freedom would liberate them from even more brutal subjugation.
In such situations, which our people experienced during the period of extreme repression, which started with the banning of our movement in 1960, many come to the determination that they have nothing to lose but their chains. With nothing to lose, and everything to gain, the vanquished are likely to choose death with honour, rather than a life of slavery.
Thus the perpetuation of the irreconcilable contradiction between white domination and black subjugation must necessarily result in the further entrenchment of the antagonism between the dominant and the dominated, rather than the acquiescence of the dominated.
This was particularly the case given the fact that the subjugation of the black majority went hand in hand with their super-exploitation and sustained impoverishment. Thus as the white minority grew ever more prosperous, the more miserable became the lives of the majority of the people.
The distinguishing feature of the South Africa that ultimately emerged after that first minor skirmish at Mossel Bay in 1488 was the racist domination and exploitation of the black majority by a white minority. This meant that our country’s future was predicated on permanent conflict between black and white, given the reality that the interests of these two sections of our population stood in contradiction one to the other, and were irreconcilable.
Determined to advance this view in the interest of all our people our movement decided to summon our people to a Congress of the People. A Call issued by the National Action Council of the Congress of the People in 1955 said:
“LET US SPEAK TOGETHER, all of us together-African and European, Indian and Coloured. Voter and voteless. Privileged and rightless. The happy and the homeless. All the people of South Africa; of the towns and of the countryside. LET US SPEAK TOGETHER OF FREEDOM. And of the happiness that can come to men and women if they live in a land that is free. LET US SPEAK TOGETHER OF FREEDOM. And of how to get it for ourselves, arid for our children. And let the demands of all the people for the things that will make us free…gathered together in a great charter of freedom.”
Thus it was that the Congress of the People met in Kliptown, Johannesburg on June 26, 1955. The Congress gave an opportunity to all our people, black and white, to decide together what we needed to do to end the conflict first heralded by the events at Mossel Bay in 1488.
Because he was restricted to Stanger under banning orders issued by the apaprtheid regime, the then President of the ANC, Chief Albert Luthuli, could not attend the Congress of the People. He therefore sent a message of support in which he said:
“Notwithstanding the false foundation on which the Union was founded the challenge that confronts us is not to help tear this compact of Union, but rather, to strive in hope and faith to amend the error of its founders who sought to make it an exclusive possession of whites only instead of a true partnership of all communities making up its multi-racial nature.
“I am happy to say that this is not the objective of the African National Congress alone but is a policy endorsed by all freedom-loving people in our land. It is this objective which gave birth in circles of the African National Congress to the idea of working for the convening of a multi-racial assembly on a nation-wide scale to formulate a Freedom Charter for our multi-racial nation.”
What defined the outcome of the Congress of the People was the support of the masses of our people for the vision for our country explained by Albert Luthuli as “a true partnership of all communities making up its multi-racial nature.”
The Freedom Charter adopted by the Congress of the People on June 26, 1955 put this in the moving words that will forever define our country. It said: “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…”
It was because of the loyalty of the overwhelming majority of our people to this vision that South Africa is today what it is, which many have described as a miracle. The determination made by the Freedom Charter, that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, now also reflected in our Constitution, decisively repudiated the dismal future for our country that those who had superior weapons had sought to impose.
In his message to the Congress of the People, President Albert Luthuli also said, correctly: “The sponsors of this great assembly and those who will associate themselves with it, whether they are present or absent, are under no illusions as to the magnitude of the task of liberating the Union from the error of its founders; nor are they so naïve as to think that this assembly will usher in a day of freedom we yearn for.
“But this day, no doubt, will stand as a bright torch or beacon of Liberty in the skies of South Africa that are already gloomily darkened by the dishonourable past action of those of its people who in the past and now have glorified and enthroned in the place of Moral Values the evils of racism, discrimination, apartheid and the like.”
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Freedom Charter, in 1980, the new President of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, said:
“The Freedom Charter contains the fundamental perspective of the vast majority of the people of South Africa of the kind of liberation that we all of us are fighting for. Hence it is not merely the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress and its allies. Rather it is the Charter of the people of South Africa for liberation.
“It was drawn up on the basis of the demands of the vast masses of our country and adopted at an elected Congress of the people. Because it came from the people, it remains still a people’s Charter, the one basic political statement of our goals to which all genuinely democratic and patriotic forces of South Africa adhere.”
This month all our people will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the adoption of this one basic political statement of our goals to which all genuinely democratic and patriotic forces of South Africa adhere. We will participate in these celebrations inspired that the perspective projected by that basic political statement now informs our constitutional order and defines the relations among our diverse people.
As we engage in these celebrations, we will also reaffirm that the victory of the perspective advanced by the Freedom Charter means that there will never again be the kind of conflict exemplified by the skirmish at Mossel Bay in 1488. Instead, our people will continue to strive to work together in the true partnership of which Chief Luthuli spoke, together to eradicate the legacy of centuries of colonialism and apartheid and build a South Africa that truly belongs to all who live in it, united in their diversity.
Long live the Freedom Charter!
**This article was first published as part of Volume 5, No. 25 of the ANC Online journal, ANCToday. It can be accessed on: http://www.anc.org.za/docs/anctoday/2005/at25.htm#art2