Why forgotten?

2008-08-28 00:00

The United Democratic Front (UDF) once deputised for the African National Congress (ANC), but the 25th anniversary of its founding passed almost unnoticed. Why?

Last week thousands of UDF activists quietly celebrated the day in 1983 that they organised a mass organisation in Rocklands, near Cape Town.

The UDF consisted of more than 500 church groups, trade unions, student organisations and sport bodies, with the aim of opposing apartheid.

Although the ANC was banned in those years, even then it was known that the UDF and ANC were affiliated and that the UDF, it is said, deputised for the ANC in the country. However, the UDF never officially supported the armed struggle.

Church leader Dr Allan Boesak was the main speaker at the founding of the organisation and asked for unity between the various societies in order to oppose apartheid.

The UDF was launched on the same day that former president P. W. Botha’s tricameral parliament was implemented. It was this parliament, which included Indians and coloured people, but not black people, that the organisation wanted to oppose.

Jeremy Cronin, ANC MP, deputy general-secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and former UDF activist, wrote in a document on the ANC website in 2000 that the UDF needed the co-operation of the Indian and coloured people to argue against the tricameral parliament.

Therefore, it wanted to appeal to a more moderate group of people — something that did not sit well with the more militant black youth in the townships and the trade unions.

Yet the values of non-racism and community activism and involvement are precisely the values that our leaders today say they want to establish.

Cronin writes that the tradition that the UDF helped to establish lives on in community policing forums, school governing bodies, ward committees and imbizos.

Trevor Manuel, the finance minister and previous UDF leader, said in an interview with the Sunday Times that when the UDF handed the struggle to the ANC, after the ANC was unbanned in 1990, some of the dynamics of the struggle were lost.

Many of the activists who mobilised people previously, started to work as parliamentarians in 1994 and spent less time on the ground.

Manuel is of the opinion that community activism, as it is described by the UDF, can help to tackle issues such as crime, education, health and unemployment.

Why then does the ANC not use this 25th anniversary of the UDF’s founding as an opportunity to revive the values of the UDF?

ANC spokesperson Steyn Speed said that the ANC was not planning a specific anniversary celebration, but will hold a conference of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) early in September. This movement started in 1989 when the UDF forged a more formal relationship with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and moved closer to the ANC.

According to Speed, this conference will bring together church groups, student organisations and alliance structures such as Cosatu and the SACP.

Three years ago, Cosatu tried to recreate the UDF, but the attempt quietly died away after opposition from the ANC, which apparently felt threatened by it.

At the beginning of the year, there was, according to insiders, meant to be a big celebration with the specific aim of commemorating the establishment of the UDF. Jacob Zuma, the leader of the ANC, also mentioned the birthday of the UDF in his January 8 statement.

However, the enthusiasm to celebrate the 25th birthday of the UDF, along with the celebration of the 90th birthday of former president Nelson Mandela, was governed by ANC infighting — especially regarding the struggle to keep Zuma out of the courts, according to an old UDF activist, who is currently an ANC branch leader.

Another former UDF activist and former government leader reckons that it’s not a “comfortable time” at the moment for the ANC to celebrate the values of the UDF. “They were values of sacrifice and unselfishness, where you did not do things for personal gain, where honesty was of greatest value, where there were ideals that people aspired to.

“With Zuma in court, it’s an uncomfortable time for the ANC to remind people of these values.”

The UDF’s slogan was “UDF unites — apartheid divides”, and in this time of deep division in the ANC it’s not the right time to remind people of the time “when everything was shared”.

“The UDF had the ability to unite, but now dissident thinkers are pushed out of the ANC. There is labelling and intolerance of people instead of real debate,” says the former activist.

But this is perhaps a somewhat idealistic view. Experts say the relationship between the ANC and the UDF was never rosy.

Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, a political analyst who led a contingent of white people to the ANC in Dakar in 1987, had dealings with the UDF in those times. He says that there was scepticism among the ANC abroad about the movement, and some regarded the UDF as a threat to the position of the ANC.

Professor Dirk Kotzé of the political sciences department at Unisa says the ANC always had an uncomfortable relationship with the UDF, especially in the Western Cape. There were major problems uniting ANC leaders who returned from exile with the UDF.

“Many of the former exiles expected positions in the ANC branches, but some of the local people felt that the exiles had not suffered as much under apartheid.”

There is still no agreement on the position that the UDF had during the struggle. “Many say that the UDF played a determining role in the struggle against apartheid, and especially the younger people think that the UDF did not receive the recognition it deserved.”

However, the ANC always saw itself as the main body in the struggle against apartheid.

In ideology there were also differences, says Kotzé. The UDF, together with Cosatu and the SACP, was more non-racial than the ANC, which only opened its leadership to all race groups in 1985. In this regard, the ANC was two years “behind” the UDF.

The exiles, who spent more time in other African states, came back with a more Africanist view than the “inziles”.

It was the UDF, with its experience of organising at ground level, that boosted the ANC’s election campaign in 1994, says Kotzé. The ANC did not have structures on the ground itself at that time.

Xolela Mangcu, a political analyst at the University of Witwatersrand, says the ANC’s reluctance to celebrate the anniversary shows that the culture and things that the UDF stood for are now less important.

“If the ANC wants to reinstate itself in the communities, the UDF model would be the right one to follow,” says Mangcu.

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