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The Birth of the Bill of Rights

The South African Bill of Rights was born out of the long struggle against apartheid and injustice. In the same year the apartheid South African government came into power in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, now the common international standard for human rights, was adopted by the United Nations. South Africa was one of only eight countries that refused to sign this seminal human rights document, in large part because the government was already preparing to implement the apartheid programme which would systematically violate every one of the rights recognized in this declaration.

In the wake of the Defiance Campaign - a multi-racial passive resistance drive launched in 1952 to voice objection to apartheid - an historical forerunner to our Bill of Rights came into being. The Freedom Charter, expressing the ‘freedom demands' collected from people across South Africa, was adopted in 1955 at the Congress of the People in Kliptown near Johannesburg.

The People Shall Govern!

All National Groups Shall have Equal Rights!

The People Shall Share in the Country's Wealth!

The Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who Work It!

All Shall be Equal Before the Law!

All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights!

There Shall be Work and Security!

The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!

There Shall be Houses, Security and Comfort!

There Shall be Peace and Friendship!


The South African government of the time declared the Freedom Charter to be treasonous and arrested 156 people in December 1956, accusing them at the Treason Trial of seeking to overthrow the state by adopting this charter. The charter became a powerful force in bringing together people of all races in a common struggle for the eradication of apartheid and the establishment of a non-racial democratic state. The charter was adopted by the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the 1980s and its ‘freedom demands' featured heavily in human rights campaigns throughout this decade.

Until the first democratic election on 27 April 1994, the vast majority of South Africans had been excluded from participating in government, and subjected to a wide variety of human rights violations. It was only when South Africa became a constitutional democracy in 1994 that those human rights of all South Africans, as expressed in the Freedom Charter, finally received protection in our Bill of Rights.



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