The Freedom Charter is a document that was written to facilitate a just social and economic order in South Africa. It was adopted on the 26th of June 1955 by the Congress of People in Kliptown, Soweto. The South African Congress Alliance made up of 4 parties, namely; the principal African National Congress (ANC), the South African Congress of Democrats (SACD), the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), and the Coloured People’s Congress (CPC) constituted this core statement of principles whose primary aim was to ensure a fair, equitable society.
Essentially, the adoption of the Freedom Charter was to state that the land of South Africa belongs to everyone who lives in the country, regardless of race. In addition, it emphasized that no government can claim legitimacy or have any nature of authority except it is a government of the people, elected by the people of the Republic of South Africa.
As may be expected, the far-reaching implications of this Charter affect all ramifications of South African life – access to equitable health, the ease of doing business, real estate, and property, government at all levels, policing, justice, and the rule of law, to mention a few.
The Era of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic, now in its 2nd year of existence, has revealed several interesting phenomena, observations, and questions. It has been well-stated that the pandemic has disproportionately affected the poor, people of colour, and minority ethnic groups within societies such as the United States and Western European countries. In South Africa, the situation is replicated with similar observations made. So far, it has been documented to have killed about 2,000 people and infected over 100,000 others. This has been substantiated by statistics made widely accessible within the public domain. Remarkably, the COVID-19 pandemic is only one of the many issues facing South Africa today. Others include systemic racism, high unemployment rates, gender-based violence, and a generally untransformed economy. Suppose access to free and fair, i.e., equitable health is a function of an individual’s skin colour, earning capacity, and social standing. How does the Freedom Charter retain its relevancy within the context of present-day South African society?
Social Determinants of Health (SDOH)
Remarkably, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how vulnerable people groups are in relation to their social determinants of health (SDOH). Specific examples include education, employment, income, and social support. These examples are together loosely used to determine the socio-economic status of individuals within a society. The lower an individual is on the socio-economic ladder, the worse his health outcome can be expected to be. This is because the level of education is directly related to one’s employment and consequently one’s ability to generate a sustainable income and generate sufficient social support. The government uses taxes to provide public goods and services. The taxes obtained from working-class people are a function of their earning capacity. Therefore, lower working-class people would generate lesser taxes, which would go into the running of their neighbourhoods compared with their more affluent counterparts.
Consequently, a child from a lower economic neighbourhood would attend less funded schools, have less or poorer access to educational and recreational facilities, and less access to nourishing food. Less access to information would mean less access to information on the transmission of COVID-19 and consequently less access to knowledge on how to protect him/herself. The preceding scenario also means s/he would have unequal, inequitable access to nourishing foods meant to boost his immune system and enable him/her to fight disease, including the effects of COVID-19. It is essential to state that the health outcomes of individuals infected with COVID-19 are worse when they have a poor or compromised immune system. Statistics have shown that the victims of the just painted scenario are disproportionately and undisputedly the poorer, lesser-educated blacks and coloureds within the South African society. The Freedom Charter states, amongst other things, that whether black, white, or coloured, South Africa belongs to every South African. As it is supposed to guarantee equal and equitable access to the afore-mentioned social determinants of health and facilitate a just, fair social and economic order, is it still functional or is it a mere relic of the past idealistic norm of the past South African governance? Years after it was instituted, it is evident that COVID-19 has shown glaringly that the Freedom Charter may not, after all, be functioning in its entirety and original capacity as envisioned by its founding fathers.
The Freedom Charter was meant to address all forms of discrimination because it refers explicitly to race and race relations. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought sharp relief to how an individual’s skin colour determines his ‘COVID-19’ health outcome. The pandemic has resulted in unprecedented challenges to human life and the work-life as we hitherto knew it. The term ‘Social Distance or Distancing’ has long been employed in the management of the pandemic, but how many low-income families can manage to ensure social distancing while at home as well as ‘working from home? Many low-income families who are disproportionately affected cannot afford to work from home because they are employed in occupations where this is physically impossible (e.g., janitorial duties, warehouse occupations). Therefore, they need to leave their homes to earn an income. Leaving their homes would then expose them to more significant risks of contracting the virus, as reports have shown. Yet the only apparent alternative to this is staying at home and eating less nutritious food or, worse, starve. Many of these lower-income individuals are employed in such occupations because of lower educational status, often due to years of institutionalized discrimination and racism.
It is now evident that the short, medium, and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be experienced by all citizens regardless of their socio-economic status. It is therefore critical that the government takes up the responsibility of providing social protection. It is also imperative that a coordinated and robust response be mobilized and specific interventions to aid in cushioning the most vulnerable of our society from the adverse effects of the pandemic.
Implications for democracy in a post-pandemic South Africa
South Africa has sadly earned the dubious distinction of being an unequal society in the world. A World Bank report in 2018 stated that the top 10% of the population own 71% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 60% of the population own 7% of the nation’s total wealth. At the pandemic outbreak, the unemployment rate was almost 30%, and the nation was in a recession. It has become clear that no nation, including South Africa, will remain the same following the current pandemic. South Africa, in particular, is likely to have it more turbulent than many other nations because of the decades of institutionalized inequalities resulting in a skewed society, as hitherto stated. Therefore, it is safe to say that democracy would lose its current tainted track record and become more accountable to the people following the current pandemic. The electorate would be keen to vote in a government that they would like to see champion the cause of the people – particularly the poor masses that constitute the bottom 60% of the nation’s human capital. This would translate to better living conditions, improved access to the social determinants of health as earlier enumerated, equitable land rights, and addressing the issue of institutionalized poverty.
In conclusion, the Freedom Charter may no longer be relevant in the era of COVID-19 because it is an obvious failure of the government to ensure optimal governance of the people who elected the government to the position of authority. It has endeavoured but not quite achieved its objective to ensure a just social and economic construct within the current South African society. However, the responsibility lies with the government, elected by the people, according to the Freedom Charter to brace up and fulfill its obligations and expectations of the citizens as outlined in the South African constitution.
Dr. Lizzy Oluwatoyin Ofusori is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban. She writes in her capacity