On 26 June this year the City of Johannesburg will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter, a seminal document in the struggle for a non-racial and democratic South Africa, at the place where it was adopted and signed: the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown, Soweto.
The conical brick tower at the centre of the SquareThe conical brick tower at the centre of the Square is a shrine to the document itself and contains the full principles of the Charter.The celebrations will honour the Square’s rich history and the activists and ordinary people that braved police road blocks and intimidation in order to be part of the Congress of the People that shouted its approval of each section of the Charter as it was read out, starting with the opening declaration: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.”
The Congress was broken up by the police on the second day, but not before completion of the full reading and unanimous approval of the document that thenceforth served as the manifesto of the African National Congress (ANC) and the anti-apartheid liberation struggle as a whole, and formed the foundation of South Africa’s 1996 Constitution.
At the time of the Congress, Nelson Mandela was serving a banning order that restricted him from attending. He made his way to Kliptown, however, and stayed within the crowd to avoid arrest while witnessing the Charter’s adoption by the various liberation organisations – the ANC, South African Indian Congress, Coloured people’s Congress, SA Congress of Trade Unions and Congress of Democrats – that had united under the banner of the Congress.
The dusty field where the gathering took place came to be known as Freedom Square, until it was renamed the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in 2002. Walter Sisulu, a key figure in the anti-apartheid struggle and one of the delegates at the 1955 Congress, was deputy president of the ANC at the time.
One of the Rivonia triallists, Sisulu was sentenced to life imprisonment along with Mandela and served more than 25 years of his sentence, most of them together with Mandela on Robben Island, before being released in October 1989.
THE WALTER SISULU SQUARE AND THE REGENERATION OF KLIPTOWN
He died in 2003, the year in which the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication project got under way. The project formed part of the first phase of a wider, R436-million project, overseen by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), aimed at the complete regeneration of Kliptown.
One of the old residential suburbs in Johannesburg, Kliptown was laid out in 1891 on a portion of the Klipspruit farm, and by 1903 had grown into an informal settlement that served as a buffer zone between Soweto and the “white” Johannesburg of the time.
The JDA-led regeneration of Kliptown included environmental and recreational upgrades along the Klipspruit River, the construction of new housing along with a new taxi rank and market for informal traders, the refurbishment of the Kliptown Railway Station – and the development of the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication precinct into a national heritage site.
Comprising a Freedom Charter monument and museum, and incorporating an open-air community meeting place, the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication was officially opened by then president Thabo Mbeki on 26 June 2005, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Charter.
Since then, a hotel and offices have been built in the precinct, along with a multi-purpose centre, formal and informal retail facilities and a park.
R20-MILLION PROJECT TO UPGRADE THE ENVIRONMENT
In preparation for the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter on 26 June, the JDA has embarked on a R20-million refurbishment aimed at upgrading the environment and making the Square a more attractive place of work and leisure for residents, tourists, office workers, street traders and shop owners.
“The concept is to change the character of the Square from a hard open space into public gardens,” said JDA development manager Joselyne Davids. “This will involve introducing soft landscaping in the form of trees, grass and flowerbeds, improved lighting, children’s play areas, and public seating.”
The project has been divided into three phases, the first of which will focus on the eastern side of the Square, especially the arrival zone and the circular route marked by the 10 pillars representing the 10 clauses of the Freedom Charter.
The first phase is due to be complete by June, in time for the Charter anniversary celebrations.