As the struggle for freedom reached a new intensity in the early fifties, the ANC saw the need for a clear statement on the future of South Africa. The idea of a Freedom Charter was born, and the Congress of the People Campaign was initiated.
During this campaign the ANC and its allies invited the whole of South Africa to record their demands so that they could be incorporated in a common document. The document would be accepted at the Congress of the People and would become the Freedom Charter. Thousands of people participated in the campaign and sent in their demands for the kind of South Africa they wished to live in. These demands found final expression in the Freedom Charter.
The campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter united most of the liberation forces in South Africa. Nothing in the history of the liberation movement in South Africa quite caught the popular imagination as the Congress of the People campaign. It served to consolidate an alliance of the anti-apartheid forces of the 1950s composed of the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured People’s Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) into a non-racial united front known as the Congress Alliance.
It also served to sustain political activity after the curbing of the Defiance Campaign and to develop and strengthen political organisation by broadening the geographical and social bases of the liberation movement and raising the political consciousness of the masses by offering a vision of an alternative social order.
The Congress of the People gathered at Kliptown, outside Johannesburg on June 25 and 26, 1955. This was a large, colourful and exciting event. In 1950, 26 June had been declared Freedom Day. In May 1950 the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) had called for a May Day strike to protest against the Unlawful Organisation Bill. The strike resulted in police violence, and the death of 18 people.
On 20 June 1950 the CPSA was forced to dissolve, and the ANC took over the planning for a ‘Day of Mourning’ for those who died in the May Day strike. They also called for the day to be celebrated as Freedom Day in the future.
The three thousand delegates who gathered at Kliptown on 25 and 26 June 1955 were workers, peasants, intellectuals, women, youth and students of all races and colours. The Congress of the People constituted the most representative gathering in the history of South Africa. It adopted the Freedom Charter, a vision for a united, non-racial and democratic South Africa.
Subsequently all the members of the Congress Alliance adopted the Freedom Charter in their national conferences as their official programme. Thus the Freedom Charter became the common programme enshrining the hopes and aspirations of all the progressive people of South Africa.