Remembering the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith

South African politics has not always been about race or class. There have been courageous people throughout our history who have stood for higher principles, and I think most would agree that Harry Schwarz was one such individual. Schwarz was expelled from the United Party...

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South African politics has not always been about race or class. There have been courageous people throughout our history who have stood for higher principles, and I think most would agree that Harry Schwarz was one such individual.

Schwarz was expelled from the United Party after declaring in Parliament, “I am my brother’s keeper”, in February 1975, referring to South Africans of all races.

That’s not the main point of this article, though. Great man that Harry Schwarz was, my motivation in writing this is the hope that we might remember a meeting between him and Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi on 4 January 1974. After this meeting a declaration was issued: the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith.

This is the original text of the document:

“The situation of South Africa in the world scene as well as internal community relations requires in our view an acceptance of certain fundamental concept for the economic social and constitutional development of our country.

We respectfully record five principles on the basis of which we believe all our people can co-operate.

  1. Change is South Africa must be brought about by peaceful means.
  2. Opportunity must be afforded to all our people for material and educational advancement. The economy must be available to serve the needs of all able and willing to contribute, and the wealth, labour and expertise of our country should be harnessed to provide job and entrepreneurial opportunity for all groups.
  3. Constitutions, blue prints and plans for the future should not be made by only some of the people for all others, they must be made with people. Consultation and dialogue lead to government by consent and with this in mind and as a first step a consultative council representative of all groups in South Africa should be constituted at the earliest opportunity.
  4. The federal concept appears to provide the best framework on which to seek a constitutional solution for a South Africa free from domination by any group over others and ensuring the security of all its people.
  5. Any constitutional proposals for South Africans must:

(i) Safeguard the identity and culture of the various groups constituting the people of South Africa.

(ii) Include a bill of rights to safeguard the fundamental concepts of natural justice.

On the basis of these principles we declare our faith in a South Africa of equal opportunity, happiness, security and people for all its people.”

Comparing this to the Freedom Charter, it is clear that South Africa had two possible paths when we began developing the Constitution in the 1990s. Rather than choose one, we opted for a compromise between the two. Imagine if we had a constitution based on natural rights as conceived by John Locke, a constitution founded on the inviolability of life, liberty and property, as opposed to the Freedom Charter’s reliance on democracy and the flawed concept of “sharing the wealth of the land”.

Imagine if we had a constitution founded on federalism such that the national government was subservient to the provincial governments and South Africans living under bad provincial administrations could move to parts of the country with a better provincial government.

Imagine if the African National Congress and the National Party had taken this declaration as a starting point for negotiations when it was first presented. How many lives could have been saved if all parties had started out accepting the principle of peaceful resolution to our political problems?

Imagine if our singular focus was on giving people opportunities for material and educational advancement, such that destructive policies like the minimum wage and other labour regulations are dropped, and unions are not allowed to hold at ransom the education of young people.

Harry Schwarz went on to try and introduce a bill of rights for all South Africans in 1983 as envisioned in the declaration. The National Party shortsightedly rejected it, and the rest is history.

More than wondering what could have been, I hope to have convinced you of what could still be if we adopt the vision of men like Harry Schwarz and Prince Buthelezi.

The Sun has not yet set for liberty in South Africa and we can begin here, by asserting that the faith two men had at Mahlabatini so long ago was not for nothing. This will require a faith of our own, translated into action as we demand our representatives fight for freedom and not just their own political careers, as Harry Schwarz would have done.

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  1. Tim Bester Reply


  2. Jaco Prins Reply

    First Time I heard about this declaration, thank you

  3. Klaus Muller Reply

    As per Jaco, how come one has never heard of this declaration & why?

    1. Mpiyakhe Dhlamini Reply

      I don’t know but I think it was convenient for a party of the ANC’s ideological background to recognise only the influence of the freedom charter on the negotiations to end apartheid and the constitution that came out of those negotiations, it might allow them later on to claim that what property rights are there were an aberration or that their leaders sold out to western interests against the spirit of the freedom charter.

      I could say more but I think more generally, the liberal influence on South African law and politics tends to be played down or dismissed as Western shenanigans while the truth is South Africa has a richer liberal history than it does both African nationalism and socialism.

  4. Harald Sitta Reply

    very fine! it can’t be that in the past the nats have written the political history and now or since 1990 the anc!

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