Free to pursue their own destiny

2013-08-20 00:00

“UDF unites, apartheid divides” — around this ringing slogan, the United Democratic Front was launched 30 years ago on August 20, 1983.

The South African security state was at its most active, and turning to increasingly violent and illegal means to sustain apartheid. Yet activists look back at that time with great nostalgia — to commitment and solidarity in a noble cause, and a real hope that a different sort of society could be built in South Africa. They knew history was in the making. The UDF’s declaration put it plainly: “We … stand shoulder to shoulder in our common struggle”.

Max du Preez, a passionate chronicler of the UDF, has written of people’s “dreams of freedom, dignity, democracy and justice”.

The orator of the moment was the charismatic priest Allan Boesak, who, in a style reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr, was able to blend a prophetic message with politics and bring together different ideologies: “Now is the time,” he declared.

The UDF did not emerge out of the blue — it was a direct consequence of lessons learnt from the 1976 Soweto Uprising and calls from various quarters for a united front against apartheid. The options were armed struggle and revival of banned political organisations, or development of grassroots organisations and trade unions to tackle community and workplace issues in a way that the government would find it impossible to suppress.

The Soweto Uprising had shown that a relatively well-educated, increasingly urbanised and politicised population was overcoming its fear of a repressive government, and would find a means to overthrow apartheid. The government knew this and so did the opposition. An authoritarian regime is at its most vulnerable at a time of socioeconomic change and political adaptation, and this one also faced an economic recession in the early eighties. There was considerable, but fragmented, opposition political activity, with the fear that the government would drive a wedge between organisations from different communities.

It was the UDF that mobilised collective action, assisted by creative alternative newspapers such as Grassroots. Historians Gail Gerhart and Clive Glaser describe the Mitchell’s Plain launch as “a joyous and rambling affair” involving 1 000 regional delegates and thousands more supporters. From the outset, the UDF prioritised the search for common ground and inclusivity among its supporters, ranging from liberal humanist to social democrat, socialist and Marxist. And it did so in a way that was both fundamentally democratic and politically astute by making its affiliates the driving force of the front. As long as they did not stray beyond the broad parameters defined by the UDF’s working guidelines (it deliberately had no constitution), affiliates were free to pursue their own destiny. This broad coalition, to summarise Boesak’s words at the launch, was claiming the God-given rights of its people — the theological roots of the anti-apartheid struggle were clearly evident in the UDF.

Popo Molefe, first secretary-general of the UDF, points out that its formation “shifted decisively the balance of power against the P.W. Botha regime” and that its short, eight-year history was marked by resilience and dedication in the pursuit of political accountability and people’s empowerment through the strength of a growing civil society. Much of the appeal of the UDF lay in its social movement characteristics and symbolism of a range of ideals, most crucially non-racialism and accountability. Jeremy Seekings argues that there were many UDFs that contributed through diversity to the front’s strength. At one extreme, it was at the forefront of township revolt and, at the other, it monitored human rights in universities — filling many roles in-between. It accommodated the varying needs of different regions. Its genius lay in acceptance of a reasonable common denominator. Mobilisation in 1983 was rapid in the main urban centres, but the UDF then spread to small towns in rural South Africa, where it was particularly influential. However, not all affiliates behaved in democratic fashion — a tendency later exacerbated by the stresses of operating under an emergency.

This anniversary of the UDF is a good point at which to examine its relationship with the ANC. It has become common wisdom to state that the former was the internal wing of the latter. This suited the government of the day, just as it now suits the ANC to claim credit for the successes of the UDF. But it is essentially a myth. Many members of UDF affiliates were, of course, ANC supporters, and its stalwarts were particularly prominent among the national and provincial leadership. A number of affiliates, such as the Congress of South African Students and Natal Indian Congress, openly supported the ANC. The UDF identified with the liberation and civil rights demands of the Freedom Charter. But it was not a front whose strings were pulled by the ANC. In common with all anti-apartheid organisations, the ANC supported a broad opposition alliance and welcomed the UDF, but there were no directives from Lusaka.

Indeed, the appeal of the UDF was that it was diametrically different from the ANC. It was not a tight-knit organisation. Instead, its origins were largely in gradualism, a belief in patient alliance- building around human rights that required flexibility totally alien to the rigid democratic centralism of the ANC. The UDF’s colours of yellow, red and black were distinctively and deliberately different. While the UDF was prone to radical rhetoric, it was also capable of persuasive behaviour.

Much of what happened in those turbulent years of the mid-eighties was beyond any central organisational control. The UDF’s four main constituencies were people of the townships, the Indian and coloured communities, unionised workers and a small progressive white population. Assisting this broad spectrum was foreign funding and support, and significant technological change relating to communications and media.

Under the State of Emergency of 1986 to 1990, the government took out the regional leadership of the UDF, seeking to weaken local affiliates. This failed, but at national level the UDF, deprived of its connection with the grassroots, did begin to sound and behave more like a vanguard movement. However, it possessed the moral stature to censure Winnie Madikizela-Mandela over her thuggish football club.

Ultimately, it was undermined by the ANC, ironically behaving as if the UDF were an internal front. In Du Preez’s words, it “[spat] out the UDF’s political culture”. From 1991, mysterious orders from “national structures” were passed down that UDF affiliates were to be rolled up and absorbed within the ANC. That this happened with remarkable ease is testimony to the unhappy fact that many prominent people saw which way the wind was blowing and where their personal interests lay. It may explain in part why the most liberal passage of South African history was so effectively hijacked by crooks and career opportunists, who laid the foundations for the corruption, racketeering, predatory capitalism and lack of respect for the Constitution that is characteristic of South Africa today. But this leaves Du Preez’s tantalising question: what would the country be like today if Botha’s government had possessed the courage to negotiate with the UDF?

Natal was the first area to set up a regional committee of the UDF on May 14, 1983. The national launch was held in Cape Town, as the Western Cape was the most complex region. Its troika of presidents — Archie Gumede, Albertina Sisulu and Oscar Mpetha — reflected a compromise between the main regions.

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