Tracing the UDF's legacy

2008-09-23 00:00

Commemorations can pass “almost unnoticed”, as Carien du Plessis wrote in her article (The Witness, August 28) about the 25th anniversary of the United Democratic Front (UDF). Either they lose their meaning, or it is in the interest of powerful groups to have them forgotten.

To borrow from Charles Dickens, the eighties were the best and worst of times. After the Communist and Liberal parties, the UDF was the third truly non-racial political movement in South Africa. It was not until the Kabwe consultative conference of the ANC in 1985 that it officially became open to all.

The affiliation structure of the UDF and its clear commitment to non-racialism — the belief that the inherent worth of individuals is paramount — meant that it attracted large numbers of people characterised by self-sacrifice, unselfishness, honesty and principle. Its strength lay in the fact that its members all belonged to largely voluntary grassroots organisations with credibility in local communities. They were drawn together by a commitment to broader principles such as human rights and democracy.

Many commentators, like Du Plessis, stress the UDF’s links with the ANC and even go so far as to say it was a front for the banned organisation. This is an over-simplification. In some ways the loosely organised UDF was as much of a challenge to the ANC as it was to the National Party, and a potential rival in post-apartheid South Africa. It was wound up in great haste in the early nineties and the two nationalist parties proceeded to stitch up South African politics between them.

It is tempting to play “what if” games with history. Certainly the values for which the UDF stood are light years away from the practices of the ANC today. It is indeed possible to argue that what the ANC inherited (or appropriated, depending on your historical perspective) has been betrayed. But this is a partial view in both senses of the term. The UDF also contained the seeds of some of South Africa’s current problems.

Beneath the principled statements and selfless activism were less salubrious undercurrents. Criminal activity was too often painted with a political brush: petty thieves who removed police car batteries or spare wheels became political heroes.

Creative accounting with foreign funds for personal benefit was excused as a way of confusing the authorities. A blind eye was turned to the thuggery that accompanied various boycotts. And arrogant young activists dismissed the opinions of qualified, experienced people and even the necessity for basic organisation as irrelevant to the struggle. In these attitudes it is possible to see the seeds of present-day crime, corruption, political threats, and contempt for the rule of law and the standards of professional bodies.

Nevertheless, the broad modus operandi of the UDF seems a lost beacon of hope today. It is reasonable to argue, for instance, that impoverishment and violence would not now be so acute in some places such as Khutsong if the government were more firmly rooted in local communities.

Out of a narrowing of real political participation and a moral vacuum, a self-appointed vanguard has emerged. While it involves a variety of personalities, perhaps the most interesting is Julius Malema, ANC Youth League president. He is the very antithesis of the principles for which the UDF stood, yet ironically he is part of the inheritance of the disruptive, destructive world of the Congress of South African Students, a UDF affiliate. He, and others like Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu secretary-general, have as little in common with the principled Left of South African politics as they have with the UDF. So how should they be defined?

The furore over Zapiro’s cartoon said it all. Under a Jacob Zuma presidency, Malema ranted, Jonathan Shapiro would be forced to respect the head of state. The fascist undertones are unmistakable. Malema is South Africa’s Benito Mussolini, part clown, part thug; and a politician whose vocabulary is one of threat of raw violence.

Writing in the late sixties, the activist and poet Dennis Brutus spoke vividly of menace in the politics of the ruling party. After the post-1994 euphoric interlude that menace is back with a vengeance. Perhaps the non-celebrated anniversary of the UDF was appropriate. But we should also recall the further words of Brutus: evil compels the commitment and involvement of principled people. It’s time they stood up in the ANC and reclaimed the better part of their legacy

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