Kliptown and the Freedom Charter

In the dark days of early apartheid rule half a century ago, on 26 June 1955, over 3 000 representatives of resistance organisations made their way through police cordons to gather on a dusty square in Kliptown, then a freehold area 40km south of Johannesburg.

Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown
Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, Soweto, commemorates the signing of the Freedom Charter in 1955. (Image: Gauteng Film Commission)

This was the Congress of the People, who met to draw up the Freedom Charter, an alternative vision to the repressive policies of the apartheid state.

At the time, Nelson Mandela had to stay concealed to avoid the police. On the second day, the authorities broke up the gathering, but not before the charter was adopted as a guiding document. It remains the cornerstone of African National Congress (ANC) policy to this day, and is seen by many as the foundation of South Africa’s 1996 Constitution.

That dusty field has now been declared a national heritage site, and on 26 June 2005 President Thabo Mbeki lit a flame of freedom in Kliptown to mark the opening of the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication – and 50 years of the Freedom Charter.

R375m upgrade for Kliptown

Construction of the Walter Sisulu Square began two years ago, spearheaded by development agency Blue IQ. The square will have a park, a marketplace with 700 stalls for traders, about 17 shops and offices, a multipurpose centre and a hotel.

Unskilled labour has been used in the construction work, as have about 90 small, medium and micro enterprises, more than half of which were created to help the project.

Kliptown, now part of Soweto, is a sprawling collection of settlements around 40km from the Johannesburg city centre, with a thriving informal business area where the people of Soweto do their shopping. Some 85% of the township consists of informal settlements.

Established in 1903 and one of the oldest urban multiracial settlements in the Johannesburg area, Kliptown has long been neglected, and many of its old buildings are now dilapidated.

With its history, it is hoped that Kliptown will become “a world-class tourist destination and heritage site offering local and international visitors a unique experience,” according to Blue IQ.

The square and monument will form part of the Greater Kliptown Development Project, a massive effort to redevelop the area and make it more habitable and conducive to business.

Some R375-million has been put aside for Kliptown’s revival, R293-million from Blue IQ and R30-million from the City of Johannesburg. Project areas include the upgrade of the Kliptown railway station, a market, the relocation of people in informal settlements, new houses, and a new 250-bay taxi rank, which is already complete.

The Walter Sisulu Square

Walter Sisulu was a delegate at the 1955 Congress of the People, a major figure in the anti-apartheid struggle, deputy president of the ANC, underground activist and Rivonia treason trialist.

Released from prison in 1989, he died in 2003, the year the R160-million Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication project was initiated. Its design was awarded to architects and urban designers StudioMAS.

Today the construction of the north and south sides of two squares, one of which is the original square where people gathered to approve the charter, is at roof level.

The complex consists of two long, narrow buildings encompassing the squares, with 10 columns on the eastern edge, representing the 10 clauses of the Freedom Charter.

Not just a construction project

But this is not just a construction project. Enormous effort has gone into relocating traders from Union Street, renovating their historic warehouses – in some cases they are more than 70 years old – and creating new functions for the buildings.

Between the two squares, on the northern end, is a tall tower, the Freedom Charter Monument. Here a freedom flame was lit by Mbeki, providing a landmark beacon to surrounding suburbs.

Opposite this tower, in the middle of the southern building, another tower is rising into the air. The base of this tower will contain a kwashisanyama, a place for preparing food.

The north and south buildings will contain offices, banks, retail space, a tourism office, an art gallery and the community hall. The search is on to place a restaurant and boutique hotel in the buildings.

Housing and wetlands

The city and the province are committed to building 7 100 houses in the coming years – 5 700 RDP houses and 1 400 houses for rental. So far only four houses have been completed, and 1 195 stands have been given services, in preparation for building.

Housing is a complex issue in Kliptown. The densely packed population of about 45 000 people needs to be systematically moved before houses can be built. In addition, electricity, water and sewage connections have to be installed.

The nearby wetlands and parks have been cleared and cleaned, employing about 50 people, with a view to employing another 170 people.

According to Blue IQ, the purpose of the Kliptown project is to redevelop this traditional apartheid-style buffer zone township between Johannesburg and Soweto into a desirable and prosperous residential and commercial locality.

The aim is to use Kliptown’s rich history, as the meeting ground of the Congress of the People and the birthplace of the Freedom Charter, as a tool to boost tourism and transform the fortunes of the settlement.

The Congress of the People

The Congress of the People was a dramatic affair held over two days and attended by 3 000 delegates from all over the country, including 320 Indian, 230 coloured and 112 white South Africans.

It came about through the efforts of the Congress Movement, which was made up of the ANC, the SA Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Organisation (later the SA Coloured People’s Congress), and the Congress of Democrats – white South Africans who identified with the movement.

“When the great day was upon us,” wrote one participant afterwards, “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.

“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, 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.”

The various clauses of the charter were introduced, there was an opportunity for impromptu speeches from delegates present, and the clauses were then read out and acclaimed by a show of hands. The Isitwalandwe/Seaparankoe – the highest honour awarded by the ANC – was awarded to Chief Albert Luthuli, president of the ANC, Yusuf Dadoo and Father Trevor Huddleston.

Only Father Huddleston was able to accept his award at the Congress of the People, as Luthuli and Dadoo were under banning orders and unable to attend.

In the afternoon of the second day proceedings were brought to an sudden close by the arrival of a large detachment of police bearing sten guns.

They took over the speakers’ platform, confiscated all the documents they could find, announced that they had reason to believe that treason was being plotted, and took the names and addresses of all delegates before sending them home.

But the Freedom Charter was signed a year later by Luthuli, and has remained the central document in ANC policy ever since.


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