South Africa

The UDF at 30: An organisation that shook Apartheid’s foundation

By J Brooks Spector 22 August 2013

Thirty years ago this week, the United Democratic Front – the UDF – became a critical part of the South African political landscape, until its formal dissolution eight years later. During that period, the UDF demonstrated that even in the most astonishingly difficult circumstances, a broad, diverse coalition of groups and individuals could be held together – despite institutional differences, arrests, banning orders and differences in ideology - to put sustained, ultimately successful pressure on an odious regime. And even if the UDF was not able to make the entire country totally ungovernable, they did succeed in making it impossible for the old order to continue. In doing this they cleared the decks for South Africa’s new non-racial order. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes an appreciative look back at the UDF at how it did and what it all meant.

Right off the bat, it must be said that the UDF and all its affiliated organisations had great posters and t-shirts. This certainly should not be seen as a put down. Instead, it became an innovative tool for the UDF’s success and those of its many affiliates and associates. Posters, banners and T-shirts could be produced quickly and cheaply and they became a force multiplier – publicising a cause, an event, a campaign or a new slogan on walls and street corners, and on the torsos of many thousands. A vivid image could be passed from one silkscreen shop to the next to be reproduced, sometimes advancing the story line with each new iteration. As pre-Internet, pre-social media artefacts, they became viral campaigns even before that particular term of art had been named.

On this precise point, the South African History Archive explains that once the UDF was created in 1983 it brought “many grassroots organisations under one banner. Some organisations consisted of cultural workers who established screen-printing resource centres. These were aimed at providing training, while serving the needs of all the UDF affiliates. In Johannesburg, the Screen Training Project (STP) was established while the Community Arts Project (CAP) was based in Cape Town. These projects were responsible for the production of thousands of posters, T-shirts, badges and banners.”

Eventually, of course, from early 1990 onward, one could go to what was informally dubbed the UDF shirt store in downtown Johannesburg to shop for one’s personal choice of cause T-shirts from a wide, constantly changing selection – so as to demonstrate solidarity with a particularly favoured particular cause. Somewhere in storage boxes in the writer’s home there is still a cache of some of those very shirts, saved for the day when they would be given to a museum – some distant time into the future. And over the past few years there have been a number of exhibitions of UDF posters and other cause ephemera, designed to acknowledge the nostalgia and magic for a past era where the causes were simpler and purer than anything true now.

And how did the UDF happen? Following the crackdown on the Soweto student’s uprising in 1976, the late 1970s had become a period of increased repression. But in January 1983, Rev Allan Boesak called on South Africans to establish a “united front” of “churches, civic associations, trade unions, student organisations, and sports bodies” to fight Apartheid when he spoke at a meeting of the Transvaal Anti-SAIC (the SA Indian Council, a body connected to the national government office that managed segregated “Indian affairs”) Committee. The ensuing debate following his speech led to a big idea – the creation of a coalition of consciously non-racist organisations all across the country.

University of Cape Town academic and historian of the UDF, Jeremy Seekings, has written of this birth that “The UDF was born out of a concern to oppose the constitutional reforms proposed by the state with the goal of co-opting coloured and Indian South Africans into supporting an inadequately reformed version of Apartheid. Opposition to the continued exclusion of black African people combined with opposition to the unequal basis on which the Apartheid state proposed to incorporate coloured and Indian people into a pro-Apartheid coalition. The UDF’s leadership at national and regional levels included many activists from coloured and Indian neighbourhoods because of the central importance of campaigning in these areas.”

Over the next seven months, provincial-level UDF coalitions began to take shape. By the end of July a working group that included Albertina Sisulu, Mewa Ramgobin and Steve Tshwete had decided to launch this new national front on 20 August, a date deliberately picked to counter the government’s introduction of legislation in the whites-only parliament to establish the so-called tricameral parliament. This would be a new parliamentary system with new chambers to deal with Coloured and Indian “own affairs” – but with the continuation of the still-white chamber for pretty much everything else. The organisers agreed on a logo for this new thing, the UDF, and their first public slogan – “UDF Unites, Apartheid Divides”. Their next decision was that any group working with government structures, cooperating with the homeland state structures (the “bantustans”), or groups breaking the increasingly visible sport and cultural boycotts would not be allowed to join the new UDF.

And so on 20 August 1983, delegates from around the country formally constituted the UDF at a meeting in a hall in Mitchell’s Plain near Cape Town that was followed by the UDF’s first public rally, with about 10,000 people. At that organisational meeting, the very first speaker was Rev. Frank Chikane and then the keynoter came from Rev. Allan Boesak who spoke of how they would bring together a diversity of groups to fight for freedom. They drafted a task agenda that focused on building an organisation that would represent all parts of the population – in stark contrast with that derided tricameral parliament. The meeting had brought together delegates from 565 different organisations from the nascent body’s regions across the nation.

The impetus for the new UDF drew on the fertile ground of a growing hunger nationally for mass anti-Apartheid-directed organisations, as well as a growing political consciousness in many of South Africa’s townships and black neighbourhoods. In the hard years following the crushing of the Soweto students uprising, a growing number of South Africans had been covertly reading and discussing revolutionary-style literature, including banned ANC material, although many of those discussions also drew on black consciousness literature (including important works of black American fiction).

As the UDF came into shape, its campaigns went beyond opposition to the tricameral parliament and began to focus on the upcoming, planned elections for the so-called Black Local Authorities (BLAs) for the townships that had been designed as a sop to the African population in lieu of any participation in that tricameral parliament. The UDF called for a boycott of the elections and the resulting very low turnout bolstered UDF confidence and helped enhance its standing nationally. Meanwhile, the UDF returned its attention towards that tricameral parliament – first coming out against the whites-only referendum on the new body and then the referenda for Coloureds and Indians. Eventually they called for a non-racial referendum across the board and amidst the tension over the planned votes, the government eventually abandoned the idea of these two additional referenda. The UDF then launched its Million Signatures Campaign against Apartheid. Success was not foreordained – it could only collect a third of its intended total.

But by the middle of 1984, with more organisational experience under its belt, a now-emboldened UDF took the offensive against the actual elections for the Coloured and Indian houses of the new parliament. With increasingly effective activities, the UDF leadership also drew the growing attention of the government – leading to the usual arrests and detentions. Nevertheless, the voting percentages for the two houses of the tricameral parliament came in at only around 20% as a result of the calls by the UDF and other groups for people to boycott those elections.

Once the tricameral parliament opened its doors on 3 September 1984, protest demonstrations, school boycotts and stay-aways began in the Witwatersrand and Vaal Triangle regions, although they were initially fuelled by plans to raise municipal services fees rather than the tricameral parliament itself. In the end, these protests set off the longest sustained period of black resistance to white minority rule in South Africa’s history. At least initially, UDF was not involved in these new protests – it had been maintaining its focus on the tricameral parliament instead.

Nonetheless, the government decided the UDF was deeply involved. And by late October-early November, Transvaal UDF affiliates had come together to create a special stay-away committee. This pushed the national UDF leadership to reconsider the usefulness and impact of such mass movements as they began to move up the learning curve in how to build mass mobilisation campaigns. This time, perhaps as many as 800,000 people ultimately responded to the call to stay home. A now more emboldened UDF, together with the Federation of South African Trade Unions (a precursor to COSATU) called for a “Black Christmas” to mourn those who had died in the protests or were still in detention as a result of the protests that would have people forego buying luxuries or holding parties during the traditional 16-26 December period.

The struggles of the previous three years were putting the UDF into balancing the tension between its frequently expressed non-racialism and its increasing ties to protests rooted in the country’s African townships. Increasingly this happened as mass school boycotts and equally mass funerals became a large proportion of UDF activities. Not surprisingly, these circumstances also created tensions between the front’s student formations and other parts of the UDF alliance. (Such boycotts, with their slogan, “liberation before education” also nurtured a protest tradition that has contributed to the difficulties that continue to plague so many of South African schools.)

By 21 July 1985 the government had declared a State of Emergency in 36 magisterial districts in the Eastern Cape and what is now Gauteng – the first such declaration since 1960, giving the police broad powers to detain, impose curfews and control the media and, a few days later, even to control funerals. The UDF was now increasingly under pressure, many of its leaders imprisoned, its networks giving way. At this juncture, consumer boycotts became the mostly widely used means of civic revolt – both with UDF sanction and from other bodies. While such efforts were supposed to be non-violent protests, violence did occur as people were sometimes forced to participate – or else.

By 1986 many of the UDF leadership cadre were singled out for arrests as people like Popo Molefe, Terror Lekota and Moss Chikane were brought into detention until they ended up as defendants in the marathon treason trial in the town Delmas many kilometres from Pretoria or Johannesburg. Meanwhile, the UDF had to wrestle with an internal tension between supporters of mass organisation and mobilisation versus those who advocated still more vigorous forms of protest.

While all this was taking place in the Transvaal, on 28 August 1985, Rev. Allan Boesak had organised a march in the Western Cape from Athlone Stadium to Pollsmoor Prison, focusing on non-violent resistance to repression and detention. In the ensuing police efforts to break up the march, nearly 30 people were killed. This, in turn, set off growing violence and the police responded by shutting 500 Coloured schools in the area. At that point, the UDF and unions pushed for a two-day strike and the violence began spread to Natal as well. Beyond protests against the government, this also led to African violence and Indians and UDF/Inkatha clashes, despite UDF calls for non-racial protests.

Observing this unruly period, the SA History Archive notes, “By the end of 1985, the UDF still found the township revolts problematic and found itself in a difficult position. It recognised the increased anti-Apartheid action in the riots as positive, but was worried about the level of violence and the lack of organisation. The UDF itself was in a state of disarray as many of its leaders were detained, and Congress of South African Students (COSAS) was banned in August” as some 8,000 UDF leaders had been detained and most of the organisation’s national and regional leaders had either disappeared, been killed or simply fled South Africa. By this point, the UDF had evolved into an organisation that had acceded to the reality of growing militancy and power in the hands of the people rather than in the hands of the UDF’s leadership. In this new reality, by December 1985 the UDF would attempt to give some direction to the population’s resistance as it issued a call for a second Christmas-time consumer boycott.

Meanwhile, on the international front, in January 1986, UDF leaders first met ANC representatives in Stockholm, Sweden to clarify their relationship and to sort out a longer-term role for the UDF. The ANC had argued for parallel streams of a “people’s war” and negotiations, calling on the UDF to increase pressure inside the country in tandem with efforts by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), as well as pressure from key groups of white South Africans.

In response to these discussions, the UDF made a more determined push to embrace the concept of “peoples’ power” and to build deeper organisational structures at local levels such as via street committees in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng townships. Once the first state of emergency had been lifted in 1986, however, those so-called “peoples’ courts” had taken charge of dispensing a kind of street justice in some places via a high level of violence and mob action. An Easter 1986 UDF conference in Durban attempted to deal with the unpredictability of this kind of ungovernability, urging instead that people take political control of their townships, their factories and their schools, despite the state’s near monopoly of lethal force. In this way, the UDF was attempting to move towards staking out a more proactive leadership of township protest as resistance patterns evolved.

As the protests grew and violence against regime collaborators also increased – including the use of necklacing – vigilante groups, especially in Natal and Kwa Zulu, but also in the Cape Town area during the Old Crossroads removals, grew in reaction to the UDF’s efforts as well. As UDF structures grew in strength, they began to employ regional organisers to coordinate media efforts, political education and financial accountability as they areas became additional key UDF objectives. By the end of 1986, the UDF could claim to have sustained the peoples’ revolt, unlike after 1976-7 or 1960-1. The UDF could point to their sustained pressure on the government, in spite of the military balance starkly in the government’s favour. The state was forced to rely increasingly on direct military power and then issued a new declaration of a national state of emergency on 12 June 1986.

Together with growing international isolation and the severe financial crisis of the period, despite the state of emergency, the on-going bannings and other forms of repression, it was becoming clear the power balance was slowly tipping away from the government. Increasing numbers of white South Africans were calling for an end of Apartheid (or avoiding the military service draft) as well. As a result, the UDF leadership felt it was the right time to work in a much more above-ground fashion, especially in alliance with an increasingly powerful COSATU as the loosely affiliated Mass Democratic Movement – and with their growing connections with an ANC that was still in exile. After some discord, the movement initiated a national protest on 6-8 June that was effectively a mass stay-away – and it garnered around 3 million participants – a vivid measure of the real power this opposition had gained in its confrontation with the government, despite the government’s efforts to suppress it.