Prof Ben Turok, Freedom Charter contributor, reflects on writing SA history

It was sixty years ago to the day that delegates from across South Africa met at the Congress of the People in Kliptown to put the final stamp on the Freedom Charter.

(Also read our article: "The Freedom Charter was on trial" - Leon Levy)

Professor Ben Turok, former ANC MP and anti-apartheid activist, was among the delegates tasked with presenting parts of the Charter, a South African vision statement, to Congress.

He remembers the declaration and adoption of the Freedom Charter on June 25 and 26, 1955 – coinciding with his birthday.

This day brings back a lot of memories and it also happens to be my birthday, so I have a double celebration.

Professor Ben Turok, former ANC MP

Delegates to the 1955 Freedom Charter gathering. Image: Eli Weinberg/UWC Robben Island Mayibuye Archives

Turok says that he was 30 years old and working as an organizer in the townships of Cape Town when the Charter was adopted.

I was appointed full-time organizer for the Western Cape. So I worked in the townships, collecting demands for the core to the Congress of the People. I saw people and held meetings all over the Cape.

Professor Ben Turok, former ANC MP

Standing for something

Following his work on the ground, collecting demands, Turok say he was surprised to receive a letter from the National Action Council, requesting him to comment on the economic clause in the Charter.

I nearly died of fright at the prospect. But I went to up Kliptown with others and there were thousands of people. I was called upon to speak but, the night before the Congress of the People, the speakers were summoned to a meeting and given a draft Freedom Charter.

Professor Ben Turok, former ANC MP

Turok says that he was unhappy with the initial details in the economic clause of the Charter, which he felt to be moderate. Having expressed his dissatisfaction, other contributors told him that he could rewrite the clause then and there.

Voices over violence

Turok says that on the second day of the gathering, as the Congress was going through the last section of the Charter, a group of police walked in with guns.

The crowd stood up and the police mounted the platform and I thought there was going to be a terrible riot – which would’ve been like Marikana. Fortunately people started singing ‘Unzima lomtwalo’ (which means the burden is heavy). As they were singing people calmed down and sat down.

Professor Ben Turok, former ANC MP

Listen to the full conversation on The John Robbie Show:

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