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The contribution of the UDF and People’s Power to our understanding of freedom (Part Two)

The contribution of the UDF and People’s Power to our understanding of freedom (Part Two)
Members of civil society and political parties gathered in numbers at the City Hall in Johannesburg on 20 August 2023 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the United Democratic Front (UDF) since it was formed. The UDF was launched at the Rocklands Community Hall in Mitchell’s Plain, Cape Town. Amongst those in attendance were former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Montlanthe. President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the gathering. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

The United Democratic Front made a distinct contribution to how democracy was to be understood and practised in South Africa. Notions of ‘popular democracy’, ‘People’s Power’, ‘self-empowerment’, ‘the masses driving the process’, ‘democracy from below’ and ‘creativity of the masses’ were all introduced as new ideas and practices into South African politics.

This is Part Two in a series, read Part One here.

The current commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the United Democratic Front (UDF) is foregrounding certain elements of the experience of the UDF and underplaying or erasing others. This period was rich with lessons that ought not to be impoverished by shorthand allusions or omissions. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: United Democratic Front 40th anniversary celebration stresses need for active citizenry

For example, a poster inviting people to attend the commemoration in the Johannesburg City Hall (and used elsewhere) says, “Reignite the UDF spirit of active citizenry for transformation and accountability.”

I have two problems with this formulation. 

In the first place, it sees the spirit of the UDF as represented by what is called “active citizenry” [My emphasis]. The UDF came to commit itself to the Freedom Charter. It was not initially a condition for entry, because it was hoped that the UDF would attract a broad range of supporters, including those who did not support the Freedom Charter. 

Most of the people who were in the UDF appeared to support the Charter, and that is why there was no opposition to adopting it.

The opening words of the Freedom Charter include the phrase that South Africa “belongs to all who live in it, black and white”.

In other words, South Africa did not belong simply to the citizens of the country. And in the context of continued xenophobia, it is somewhat unfortunate to use the word “active citizenry” without qualification or explanation.

This is not nitpicking insofar as the Freedom Charter and the UDF “people’s power” experience speak to an understanding of universal freedom. It undermines universality and leaves an opening to those who espouse xenophobia by using terminology that excludes residents of South Africa who may not be citizens.

We have seen, since 1994, outbreaks of xenophobia which, as far as I’m aware, were hardly present at the time of the UDF. It may well be that I do not know of this since I did not live in an African township, but I spent time in townships and much of what I learnt of popular power derives from discussions and interviews with people who lived in those townships. 

I never then heard of acts of xenophobia, but now it can be found in areas where People’s Power was strong — like Atteridgeville (see here and here).

Surely the commemoration in 2023 should be sensitive to this in its formulations. Are non-South African residents unwelcome in this commemoration and any re-dedication to the principles of the UDF? 

It should be recalled that some non-South African citizens, black and white, fought in our struggle, notably Michael Dingake (who served many years on Robben Island) and Fish Keitseng, both citizens of Botswana. They made our Struggle their own. (See here and here, and there were others. Also see Michael Dingake’s two autobiographies, My Fight Against Apartheid, International Defence and Aid 1987, and Better to Die on One’s Feet, South African History Online, 2015).

That would be my first reason for questioning whether the “reigniting” of the spirit of the UDF does not need further interrogation to avoid departures from or set limitations on an inquiry into what that spirit signifies.

In the second place, this invitation correctly refers to the spirit of the UDF as being for transformation and accountability. I have no problem with that and it is very relevant to current politics and broader state actions. Likewise, transformation is essential, though we may battle to agree on what it signifies.

Erasure of popular power

But is that all? What is the place of popular power in our commemoration of the UDF in 2023? 

Some of those involved in UDF40 were very clear about the importance of People’s Power in the 1980s — like Murphy Morobe, who made a key statement on the importance of popular power (see below) and Titus Mafolo (Interviews 1986), then of Atteridgeville, who I interviewed, and he explained the operation of popular justice — and there are others who may or may not be part of UDF40. (Raymond Suttner, Popular Justice in South Africa Today, unpublished seminar paper, 1986. After spending time in detention I was not able to recover a copy of this paper other than a blurred scanned version).

Some may understandably be less immersed in the spirit of people’s power because they were imprisoned when it emerged, as with leading figures held and convicted in the Delmas Treason Trial. This applies to UDF leaders like Popo Molefe, who was in prison for almost the whole of the people’s power period.

There is a practical reason why popular power does not signify much in the minds of some of the celebrants. This is because post-apartheid South Africa, with its admirable constitutionalism, did not include popular power — the self-acting political organisation of the oppressed. It was not meant to be “constitutionalised”.

People could make representations and some street structures survived and others were created in this period, and I have even been told of street structures being established this year, as a non-state and non-ANC phenomenon (as was the case in the 1980s).

But the ANC comrades formerly in the UDF generally made no attempt to create a space for popular power in the unfolding of post-apartheid democracy. Consequently, it is in line with the practice that was followed to erase it in the invitation.

It is significant to note, and I will return to this in later parts, that after 1990 — in fact, from the late 1980s — the popular power period was more or less crushed under the weight of successive States of Emergency.

Some suggest that the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) was an earlier rebirth of the UDF. 

The MDM — comprising Cosatu and the churches — was not the rebirth of the UDF! The MDM was not organically connected to structures, as street committees had been to the UDF and so forth and more or less displaced the UDF that had been banned (See M. Neocosmos, “From Peoples’ Politics to State Politics: Aspects of National Liberation in South Africa”, in A. O. Olukoshi, ed., The Politics of Opposition in South Africa, Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute, 195- 241).

In the late 1980s, many leading figures were in prison, under house arrest or operating underground. There was a vacuum and it was good that the MDM tried to fill it. But it did not occupy that space in the same way as the UDF and popular power had done.

In the 1990s, popular power was not featured prominently, except as a type of battering ram in negotiations. 

The ANC leadership would sometimes exhort its followers to come out and protest, and in so doing present the apartheid regime with popular power — but not for reasons similar to the 1980s. 

Insofar as the masses were exhorted to take to the streets after 1990, it was to strengthen the hands of the negotiators, not to directly take charge of any part of their own lives as had happened under People’s Power.

UDF contribution towards democratic thinking

The UDF made a distinct contribution to how democracy was to be understood and practised in South Africa. The 1980s introduced modes of practising politics that had never previously been seen in South Africa, and that continued to condition many people’s expectations for some time thereafter.

Notions of “popular democracy”, “People’s Power”, “self-empowerment”, “the masses driving the process”, “democracy from below” and “creativity of the masses” were all introduced as new ideas and practices into South African politics (cf. Morobe Morobe, “Towards a People’s Democracy: The UDF View”, Review of African Political Economy, 40, 1 (1987), pp. 81–95, 19879 and Neocosmos, above).

There were abuses of various kinds in the period of People’s Power (to which I will return in a later part), but there were nevertheless important reinterpretations and new notions introduced into South African democratic discourse. 

People’s Power constituted, in part, a new meaning and deepening of the interpretation of the Freedom Charter.

In many ways, this was self-consciously the case, with activists saying that what they were doing in the street committees or other organs of People’s Power was to implement the first clause of the Freedom Charter: that “The People Shall Govern!” (Interview, Weza Made of Uitenhage 1986).

The period of the UDF represented a notion of “prefigurative democracy”. Democracy was not understood as being inaugurated on a particular day, after which all the practices and ideals that were cherished would come into effect. People saw what they were doing in their daily practices as part of the process of building the “new South Africa”.

Means and ends became fused; the democratic means were part of democratic ends. In fact, what was being done at that moment was seen as valuable in itself and not merely in an instrumental sense, contributing towards a distant goal when the (problematic) notion of transfer of power to the people would occur.

Then leading UDF figure, Murphy Morobe, now one of the leading figures in UDF40 elaborated:

“[A] democratic South Africa is one of the aims or goals of our struggle. … democracy is the means by which we conduct the struggle. 

“… the creation of democratic means is for us as important as having democratic goals as our objective. Too often models of a future democratic South Africa are put forward which bear no relation to existing organisations, practices and traditions of political struggle in this country. 

“What is possible in the future depends on what we are able to create and sustain now. A democratic South Africa will not be fashioned only after the transference of political power to the majority has taken place.

“The creation of a democratic South Africa can only become a reality with the participation of millions of South Africans in the process — a process which has already begun in the townships, factories and schools of our land. 

“Our democratic aim… is control over every aspect of our lives, and not just the right (important as it is) to vote for a central government every four to five years.” (See Morobe, above, at pp.81-82).

Songs remain largely the same

While many activists and leaders were involved in insurrectionary activity, the notion of politics in their perspective did not sit easily with a focus on a decisive moment of seizure or transfer of power. 

The problem with the notion of a “transfer of power” to the people lies partly in its implication that, at a particular moment, something called power is handed over — a “thing” is passed from one set of rulers to another, and after that, something completely different is done. (N. Poulantzas, “State, Power, Socialism” (London, Verso Books, [1978] 2000), pp. 257–258).

This conception tends to devalue immediate activity, whose relevance is understood purely in relation to realising something else — the seizure or transfer of power at some decisive moment in the future. 

This is a notion that converges with classic Marxist-Leninist texts as well as general conceptions of transition held by most national liberation movements. 

Much of Lenin’s writings focus on this decisive moment, and the literature of the ANC and SACP and the thinking of many other liberation movements in Africa developed within a similar ideological environment.

The UDF envisaged building elements of People’s Power immediately, thus transforming relationships between the powerful and the powerless even before the moment of “taking state power” when the people would ultimately govern themselves through control of the central state. (Trade unions already understood this. See Steven Friedman, “Building Tomorrow Today”, Ravan Press, 1987).

While not self-consciously challenging the perspectives of the ANC and SACP, in practice, the UDF implied something different from their notion of transition — people understood what they were doing in the 1980s as a moment of self-empowerment. They did not wait for leaders to tell them what to do, but directly exercised their democratic rights in their political practices.

However, there was also a strong sense of hierarchy, which meant there was never any idea of a conscious challenge to leadership. Nevertheless, people on the ground were more than mere instruments implementing what others advised or instructed. They were direct actors, who decided what should be done and how, and in so doing, they exercised considerable creativity. DM

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He was actively involved in the UDF and in advocating People’s Power. This led to his spending much of the 1980s underground, in State of Emergency detention or under house arrest.


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