The Kempton Park magistrate court convicted me for possession of banned literature in 1979. In December 2013 I applied for a Police Clearance Certificate with the South African Police Service (SAPS) in order that I could provide my bona fides as an honest and hardworking citizen to my business partners with whom we were intending to create a corporate company involving foreign investment partners. The clearance certificate mentioned the conviction for a banned publication in 1979. This publication is the Freedom Charter.
It is now 36 years since the conviction and I take it any serious entity would dismiss the criminal record on my file with the SAPS. The Freedom Charter itself was unbanned in 1985. I also happen to have had a twelve year conviction in 1988 for terrorism and membership of a banned organisation, namely the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania. This terrorism conviction is expunged from my records – correctly so. I expect the same with this 1979 conviction for the Freedom Charter.
The President of the African National Congress and the current Head of State, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, has declared 2015 the Year of the Freedom Charter. This confirms that the criminal record on my file – for possession of the Freedom Charter – is unfair and undeserved.
I was taught to completely subjugate myself in the national liberation struggle, to be absolutely honest and upright in character, to be the same during the day and at night time, and to unconditionally love the African people. I uphold these norms and values wholeheartedly.
I’m not a criminal. I advocate for clean administration and good corporate governance. I also believe that the moral high ground of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid was based on correct ethics. We came selflessly clean and transparent. My good name must therefore not be blotted by a criminal record that would be too difficult to explain in later years by my descendants.
In brief, this is how I ended up with a conviction relating to the Freedom Charter: In 1978 I had written down the whole Freedom Charter document from a collection of essays in a banned book on the African Revolution. I made copies of the handwritten Freedom Charter and distributed it to several members of the Black Consciousness movement in Tembisa, and asked that we discuss its contents and make up our minds whether it was still relevant and that it represented the views and aspirations of the Azanian masses. The group was debating what is to be done, after the prohibition of Black organisations on 19 October 1977.
The security police came to know of this and hunted me down for stirring the pot in the docile community, and for reviving former members of the banned Black Peoples Convention (BPC) and rallying them into renewed political activism. I was ultimately detained and tortured with electric shock, and physical beatings were meted out to me by the security branch police stationed in Tembisa, near Kempton Park. They then kept me at the Modderbee Prison in Benoni under the General Law Amendment Act which allowed for a fourteen day detention period.
A campaign for my release was conducted by the Writers in Prison Committee in London, UK; the Index on Censorship publication; the South African fraternity of creative writers, the International PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) and other organisations concerned with the freedom of thought and speech. These organisations also raised funds to bail me out and carry the expenses for legal defence. In particular, I must gratefully mention the names of (1) Mike Kirkwood, publishing director of Ravan Press – where I worked; (2) Sipho Sepamla, prominent poet and literary magazine editor; (3) Nadine Gordimer, internationally renowned anti-apartheid author; and, (4) Mothobi Motluatse, journalist and chairperson of the SA Chapter of International PEN, who all at the time played an active role to support and see to the just end of the court case.
The conviction was nine months imprisonment, suspended for five years. This meant I couldn’t be sent to serve the jail term, unless I was convicted of a similar offense within five years time.
I went on to publish anti-establishment books at Ravan Press and at Skotaville Publishers. We published books by a wide range of authors and the publications were often banned from time to time. In my capacity as editor of a publishing house in the period between 1979 and 1992, I interacted on a regular basis with the Censorship Appeal Board and campaigned vigorously against censorship.
The conviction for banned literature failed to intimidate me and my colleagues. We raised the anti-censorship campaign at various international levels. The standpoint was to publish and be damned.
The criminal record must be expunged. I’m not amused by the criminal record on my file with the SAPS. I regard myself as an honest and law-abiding citizen of a free and democratic South Africa. The criminal record is an ugly blemish on my voluntary service to the cause of the African people for national liberation. It diminishes the outcome of the freedom of expression that is guaranteed in the South African constitution for which I suffered in the hands of the security branch police. It also undermines the cost of sacrifice to my youth that I personally made for transformation and change in the country.
The Freedom Charter is a document of significant importance in the history of the national liberation struggle in South Africa. It undoubtedly triggered the political tendency of Africanists within the African National Congress in the 1950s. Debates and extensive discussions on its merits as an agenda for the struggle were held countrywide, and led to the establishment of the Pan Africanist Congress in 1958.
The constitution of South Africa has integrated some of the sentiments expressed in the Freedom Charter. Some of the new parties in the opposition benches in parliament currently claim to be working under the guidance of the Freedom Charter. 26 June 2015 is the sixtieth anniversary of the Freedom Charter.
I have often boasted jokingly to my close friends and comrades in the African National Congress that I was the only one with the right to put the Freedom Charter up for public scrutiny, because I was tortured for it. I also had the “right” to refer to them as Charterists, a terminology they don’t like, because only I know what it means. However, it is not funny anymore.
It is not right for me in the year 2015 to continue to have blight on my personal records for the Freedom Charter. I’m not asking to be honoured with the African National Congress’ Isithwalandwe. I’m not a Charterist. I do however want the criminal record to be expunged by the ruling African National Congress before any anniversary celebration and fanfare over the Freedom Charter is entertained.
It is a small matter that the Minister of Police can endorse to clear my record. The National Assembly’s portfolio committee on security and safety would be able to see to it that this is done seamlessly. If all fails, the State President has the powers to give instructions that my conviction be rubbed off the records. This is not too much to ask.
By Jaki Seroke
The writer is a PAC political stalwart, chairperson of the board of the Pan Africanist Research Institute (PARI) and member of the national executive committee of the SA National Military Veterans Association.