There was always going to be behind-the-scenes drama. Who exactly can and may lay claim to the legacy and heritage of the United Democratic Front will remain a matter for debate. Two separate invites were sent out for Sunday’s commemoration of the launch of the UDF at the Rocklands Civic Centre in Mitchells Plain 34 years ago. One was emailed on an ANC Western Cape letterhead while the other went out under the banner of the UDF. And while it was a day of remembrance, Struggle songs and speeches, it was also a day of sadness – sadness that South Africa and the ANC in 2017 could be at such a low point. By MARIANNE THAMM.
And there it still is. The Rocklands Civic Centre, 34 years after 400 religious, civic, student, trade union and women’s organisations came together in 1983 to form a united front against apartheid.
At the entrance is a weathered concrete sculpture commemorating the historic event attended that day by 10,000 people united in one goal, a massive final push-back of the frontiers of apartheid. Seven years later, in 1990, Nelson Mandela was released.
Rocklands Civic Centre somehow looks smaller, shabbier with its characteristic pitched roof. Inside the rafters are exposed. The same rafters that held the weight of activists who found a perch there in 1983. There are the pale bricks still, once festooned with yellow and red UDF banners. There, up near the wooden beams, are the clustered quartets of industrial lights, floating like durable chandeliers and which are captured hovering in now iconic photographs taken in 1983.
Would those leaders who were there that Saturday in August 1983 come to remember in 2017? The Reverend Allan Boesak, who delivered a rousing and memorable keynote speech, would he be moved to celebrate? Boesak has only just moved back to Cape Town after five years abroad so he was in the vicinity. But Boesak is no longer a member of the ANC and has made his views known, so his presence would be unlikely.
Terror Lekota, now Cope leader, who was elected UDF publicity secretary in 1983, was also in Cape Town on party business at the weekend, meeting with religious leaders. Would he pop in to surprise the crowd? And what about Trevor Manuel, Cheryl Carolus?
None of them came.
No one seemed in the mood to trade in nostalgia.
Carolus tendered her apologies as did Manuel who was at Westpark Cemetery attending the Kathrada Foundation’s opening of a Site Of Remembrance for the stalwart who died in March.
On Sunday, a very different and much smaller crowd of about 300 people eventually filed into the community centre to remember the UDF. There was no visible bling, no flaunting of expensive labels, no hulking vehicles in the parking lot, no bodyguards, big wigs or aroma of food being prepared.
Most who came were dressed in ANC colours. Those wearing T-shirts chose images of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.
At noon, when the event was due to kick off, the hall was still empty as organisers put finishing touches to the main table where members of the troubled ANC Western Cape’s PEC would be seated. An endless loop of Struggle songs played.
And then the buses arrived, and the people.
“Ramaphosa thetha amasebe” they sang (Ramaphosa talk to the branches).
We know now where we stand.
MC for the day was Derek Hanekom (who may or may not have known at that point that ANC SG Gwede Mantashe had sent him a stiff memo warning he is about to be removed as chair of the party’s disciplinary committee). The keynote speaker was former Prasa chair Popo Molefe, the UDF’s first General Secretary. Cosatu regional secretary Tony Ehrenreich and former Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool were there too.
The notice for the meeting had gone out billing Molefe, Ebrahim Rasool, Farid Esack, Roseberry Sonto, Don Gumede (son of late stalwart Archie Gumede) and Nomaindia Mfeketo (whose reputation is not exactly unblemished). It didn’t specify that they would be speaking, just that they would be there. But as is the UDF tradition, some of them couldn’t make it. Mfeketo and Esack were no-shows.
ANC Regional secretary Faiez Jacobs welcomed the crowd, announcing that there had been a suggestion that the ANC version of Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika be sung instead of the national anthem. Hanekom shook his head but the audience followed their hearts, singing the ANC version without the modified Die Stem and the English tail end about “sounds the call”.
As Ehrenreich spoke, and for the first time mentioned one of the elephants in the room – “the Guptas” – the crowd erupted “they must go”.
In front, a comrade who had enjoyed a liquid breakfast, and who had been vocal from the start, sporadically punctuated silences with “We need a second revolution!”
Rasool roused the crowd, reminding all of the diversity of that day in 1983; “every colour, every creed, every ethnicity, every gender, they were in this hall. We have a task to make sure that that kind of crowd comes back to the African National Congress,” said Rasool.
“We need a second revolution!” shouted the comrade again.
A few in the audience gently shushed him but he was beyond caring.
Rasool pushed on, reminiscing how “in the UDF you could not come with your jacket and your blouse. You come with your constituency to the UDF if we wanted to defeat apartheid. The time for you all where you say I represent my jacket is gone. We will clean up the ANC on the inside so we can clean it up on the outside.”
“We need a second revolution!” shouted the comrade. “Amandla!” he added, pumping his fist in the air.
How to manage the growing nuisance. Escort him out?
“We need this comrade here” said someone as UDF activist Mario Wanza quietly sidled in next to the rowdy audience member in an attempt to calm him gently.
After Rasool, Hanekom offered audience members an opportunity to speak from the floor.
And this was the most profound, memorable and symbolic moment of the day.
Here were the ordinary members of ANC branches – the amasebe, that source of so much friction – who were directly addressing the ANC regional leadership that has buckled under vicious factionalism that has almost crippled it.
Fifteen ordinary ANC members, from this ward and that, waited their turn to take the microphone and speak for less than a minute.
It is this tradition, this connecting with the people, that once was the hallmark of the UDF and the ANC. It is a tradition that is embedded in the DNA of those activists from those 400 organisations who formed part of the UDF. The power of the grassroots, of ensuring that everyone is heard, listened to.
And there was no rhetoric, no cheap political platitudes.
The statements were a litany of continued suffering and pain. They were delivered with passion and conviction.
“We are afraid of crime”; “Where are the police our children are being killed?”; “We don’t have jobs, we can’t afford food, electricity”; “We are tired of corruption, we are tired of unaccountable leaders”; “Minister Mbalula came here and promised to help, he still hasn’t.”
When it was his turn to speak, Molefe did not hold back.
He said he wished that the birth of the UDF would one day be an event that was celebrated nationally by everyone.
“We should be at a stadium,” he said to applause.
“The UDF was born out of conditions of struggle and suffering… Homelessness, the high cost of transport, bread and butter issues,” he said.
The front was a grassroots organisation, embedded in communities who had helped to shape the country’s history and that yielded leaders who inspired people through their conduct.
However, the ANC today, said Molefe, is “weak and is not a participatory democracy. We have an NEC that can make decisions that do not reflect the will of the people. They are afraid that if we clean up, their next destination will be jail. We cannot be governed as if our people are morons or don’t have brains.”
Molefe referred to his lodging of complaints about corruption at Prasa with the Hawks but that the DPCI had failed to investigate these.
“Billions have been looted. I will take them to court if they do not investigate. We have failed to lead. That is why we are being led. We are being led by the EFF, the DA and civil society. They are the defenders of the Freedom Charter and the Constitution,” said Molefe to wild applause.
He said there were those who asked why the ANC would want to commemorate the UDF “now when it [the ANC] has problems? The UDF must not be treated like a third force. We assumed when we became free that all of us were like us. They [current leaders] have moved in the opposite way.”
The ANC, said Molefe, was paralysed – “this is a mistake all of us made. What standards are we applying?” he asked.
“But we are preparing to fix the ANC at the coming conference. There is no way the ANC can allow itself to be held hostage by a corrupt individual, otherwise we must kiss governing goodbye.”
“We need a second revolution!” the comrade shouted.
And just then, officials began to hand out apples.
The ANC has reached its tipping point. Those on Sunday celebrating the UDF on the piece of hallowed ground where it was born understand and know. You could tell by the quality of sadness and disappointment in the speeches and the songs. DM