Thirty years ago, almost to the day, on 20 August 1983, I was sitting on the rafters at a packed Rocklands Civic Centre. The occasion was the launch of the anti-Apartheid coalition, the United Democratic Front (UDF), which was formed out of a few hundred organisations opposed to reforms introduced by the Apartheid government.
I was sitting on the rafters because there was no other place where I could comfortably follow proceedings as nearly 15,000 people packed the hall and the huge marquee that had been set up outside. Nowadays my activities would probably be considered illegal, as stringent city by-laws now control how many people are allowed inside public spaces. Sitting on the rafters would be frowned upon by the city fathers.
Speakers at the launch included struggle stalwarts such as Helen Joseph, Frances Baard, Archie Gumede, Oscar Mpetha, Samson Ndou, George Sewpersadh, along with younger activists such as Aubrey Mokoena and the Rev. Frank Chikane. The youngest speaker was eight-year-old Leila Issel, who spoke on behalf of her father, Johnny Issel, who was “banned and cannot be here today”. From where I sat on the rafters I saw Issel, probably one of the most formidable activists in the country at the time, sitting in the audience in disguise. Knowing Johnny the way I did, there was no way that he was going to miss this important event, banning order or not.
But the biggest cheer was reserved for the Rev. Allan Boesak who had mooted the idea of a united front against Apartheid when he spoke at the Transvaal Anti-SAIC committee in January that year. Boesak’s proposal led to a committee being formed to investigate the feasibility of such a structure and, once agreement had been reached, in July 1983, the UDF was launched within three weeks.
The ANC and other political organisations were banned at the time, and the UDF signalled a new upsurge in internal protest against Apartheid. While the organisers of the UDF insisted that it was not a front for the ANC or any other organisation, it became clear very early on that the organisation would be a key ally to organisations forced to operate from exile. The ANC was banned, of course, and any organisation openly aligning itself to the ANC and its aims would also have been banned, almost with immediate effect.
Starting from a focus of attention on the tricameral parliament which was launched by the Apartheid regime as a way of involving coloureds and Indians in their own parliaments while excluding Africans, the UDF very quickly started taking up other political issues and became the main opposition to Apartheid inside the country. Through its continuous mass protests it played a key role in forcing the Nationalist government to the negotiating table with the ANC.
The UDF’s strength was its community structures. It was comprised of of community, youth, women, worker, religious, sport and other organisations, many of them with strong roots in communities throughout South Africa. The organisation was strongly anti-Apartheid but based many of its decisions and activities on a strong commitment to non-racialism, non-sexism and the desire for a more equitable society. It provided a solid training ground for many activists who ended up occupying senior positions within government after South Africa’s first democratic elections almost 20 years ago. Of course, as soon as the ANC was unbanned and its leaders returned to South Africa, it disbanded the UDF, perhaps sensing that it could pose a threat to South Africa’s oldest liberation movement.
Tomorrow (Tuesday) when the UDF turns 30, it will not be celebrated in any major way, except for a paid televised breakfast which appears to have side-tracked from its original intentions to include a tribute to the UDF.
This is not surprising, given the suspicion with which the UDF has always been viewed by some people within the exile section of the ANC. There is also, I suppose, the fear that one would not want to create confusion with the recently re-launched UDF by disgruntled Western Cape activists, who have even hijacked the original UDF colours, logo and slogans. But while the UDF enjoyed mass support, the new organisation appears to enjoy only sporadic support, despite trying to trade on the original organisation’s history.
But while there might not be mass rallies celebrating one of the key organisations against Apartheid, it is important to revisit the values that we learnt from the UDF as young activists. Some of those values still drive many activists to this day. It is important to ask what the UDF stood for and to see how far we have come as a free country in delivering on the demands that people had 30 years ago. It is a good barometer of what still needs to be done in our country.
One of the key lessons we can learn from the UDF today was its commitment to democracy and transparency. Every decision made by the UDF was discussed at length at community level and, as a result, gathered widespread support when implemented. Despite existing under the watchful eye of the security police, the organisation still managed to consult widely. There was always a tendency to share more than was necessary with the people on whose behalf the organisation operated.
Tomorrow I hope to find a quiet corner where I can reflect on the impact that the UDF had on my life and the lives of many others. I will think about the many comrades who sacrificed their lives so that we can be free today. And I will try to think of ways in which I can help to achieve the South Africa for which they were prepared to lay down their lives. DM
Ryland Fisher has more than 30 years of experience in the media industry as an editor, journalist, columnist, author, senior manager and executive. Among his media assignments were as Editor of the Cape Times and The New Age and as assistant editor at the Sunday Times.Fisher is the author of Race (published 2007), a book dealing with some of the issues related to race and racism in post-apartheid South Africa. His first book, Making the Media Work for You (2002), provided insights into the media industry in South Africa. He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He also runs a consultancy focusing on media and social cohesion.