The Freedom Charter turns 59 years old

Kliptown top 654The Freedom Charter turns 59 years old

The Freedom Charter was launched in 1959; today the Charter's egalitarian principles are enshrined in delicate stone at the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown.

Kliptown inside 250On 26 June 1955, the South African Congress launched the Freedom Charter in Kliptown, Soweto.

Fifty-nine years later, the Charter is still a clarion call for freedom and equality for all, with its opening words, "The People Shall Govern", the basis of South Africa's now 20-year-old democracy.

The Charter's strength lies in its ten clauses, each a summary of the demands of South Africans suffering under apartheid; the Charter demands, among others, education for all, that all South Africans share in the country's wealth, and, of course, that all South Africans enjoy equal rights under the law.

To commemorate the launch of the Charter in Kliptown, which, having being established in 1903 is the oldest suburb in South Africa, the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication was built. The Square was later completed with the installation of ten artworks atop 7m-high columns with the Johannesburg Development Agency overseeing the project.

The project cost R780 000, and is a comprehensive testament to each of the Charter's clauses. Each column, with a relevant statue atop it, represents a clause in the Charter, and collectively, the people of South Africa.

The statues were built using slate tile and a concrete-and-steel frame; Usha Seejarim, who designed the statues, said in an interview with the City of Johannesburg, that, "The reason for using stone was twofold. It is firstly a reference to the word 'stone' (klip) in the word 'Kliptown' and secondly, [it is] a symbol of the manner in which the Freedom Charter was adopted - through the coming together of hundreds of people and hundreds of pieces of paper to form an ideal set of living values."

Kliptown inside3 250Each sculpture weighs about 800kg, suitable for the weighty subject matter it represents. But the details are important too; each figure is recognisably human, either male or female, but facial specifics have been left out. Seejarim said that because the figures would be so high up, creating such detail would be lost on a viewer, so she concentrated on the form, a challenge in itself as she had to work with horizontal slices of slate to build recognisable human forms.

But the internationally recognised artist was up to the challenge. Seejarim holds a master’s degree in fine art from Wits University (2008), and a B-Tech degree in fine art (1999) from the University of Johannesburg. Her work, having been exhibited globally, explores identity, and she creates public art, sculpture, video and installations. Her most prestigious piece to date is the official portrait created for Nelson Mandela's funeral in Qunu in December 2013.

Her work in Kliptown is simple yet evocative; a young girl reading a book seated represents the Freedom Charter's clause on education for all; two men shaking hands are indicative of the clause on peace and friendship; and another shows two men holding a mealie, sharing in the country's wealth.

Each of the ten statues is a work of art; together they are a formidable reminder of the will of the people.