- Reflections on the Freedom Charter by Mandla Seleoane and Ben Mokoena
The conventions which determine whether work passes academic muster are occasionally challenged – but the critique is not sustained enough to prevent the drawing of arbitrary boundaries which may cut scholars off from useful work.
A case in point may well be Mandla Seleoane and Ben Mokoena’s Reflections on the Freedom Charter, which appeared last year, the 60th anniversary of the Charter’s adoption at the Congress of the People in Kliptown, Johannesburg. The book faces some formidable obstacles which have relegated it to the outer margins of public consciousness. It was not published by an academic or even a mainstream non-academic publisher but by a small company established by Seleoane himself. It does not appear in bookstores because, according to Seleoane, they refuse to stock it (whether because they don’t carry self-published books or because they don’t think it will sell is unclear).
Its content is also outside the current consensus since it offers not a defence but a trenchant critique of the charter which, of course, has achieved near iconic status among both ANC supporters and those critics who operate within the currently reigning paradigm. And so, while two other publications on the Charter which appeared last year, Gauteng Transport MEC Ismail Vadi’s The Congress of the People and Freedom Charter: a people’s history and activist and writer Dale McKinley’s 60 Years of the Freedom Charter – no cause to celebrate for the working class, also did not make it into the publishing mainstream, both were written for mainstream constituencies: Vadi’s for current and former ANC supporters, McKinley’s [End Page 169] for the left of the labour movement and social movements. Seleoane and Mokoena’s likely audience is the Black Consciousness (BC) movement which is, of course, politically marginal (although a revival, albeit in new organisational guise, is certainly a possibility).
The book’s authors are not exactly household names in the academy. Seleoane, although based at the Tshwane University of Technology, is better known as a former trade unionist and BC activist. Mokoena was the first post-1994 mayor of Middelburg in Mpumalanga, where he became known for his commitment to working with grassroots citizens: while he then represented the ANC, he has become an articulate critic of his former political home. Its ability to attract academic audiences is also limited by the book’s style which does not conform fully to current academic convention. All of these circumstances seem likely to consign it to permanent oblivion, which may well be its likeliest fate. This review is a small attempt to prevent this by arguing that Reflections on the Freedom Charter deserves serious academic consideration because its current marginal status is a consequence of convention and the political balance of power, not a consequence of the merits of the work. By implication, this invites reflection on the degree to which current understandings of what constitutes a valid academic work cuts us off from ideas and insights which add to our understanding of society and politics.
An obvious reason for taking the book seriously is precisely that it offers a perspective which is rarely heard. A halo currently surrounds the Charter, but it was not always thus – the document was rejected by the Africanist wing of the ANC and by the BC movement, primarily because it was seen as a rationale for ‘multi-racialism’ rather than ‘non-racialism’ and was thus branded a legitimator of white privilege. The divide was significant enough to define the two competing constituencies within ‘liberation politics’, particularly in the 1980s: battles were fought between Charterists and their Africanist or black consciousness opponents. For the latter the Charter was less a vehicle of freedom than a weapon of war which was used to impose conformity: Seleoane observes that: ‘Although the ANC does not seem to conduct its affairs strictly in accordance with the document, it does every now and then beat people on the head with it’ (Seleoane and Mokoena 2015:18). Not surprisingly, his critique...