Defend Truth


We must return to the UDF’s founding principle of the unity of the oppressed


Dr Seelan Naidoo is principal associate at Public Ethos Consulting. He holds a master's in Decision-making, Knowledge and Values from Stellenbosch University, and a PhD in Organisation Studies and Cultural Theory from the University of St Gallen. He is an associated researcher of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. He writes in his personal capacity.

This article is a call to the erstwhile comrades of the UDF to once again take up the urgent struggle against contemporary despair and injustice in all its forms. That is our calling as progressive activists who want to recover something of the UDF for the sake of a country on the precipice.

The conventional historiography of the United Democratic Front (UDF) begins with the momentous event of its birth on 20 August 1983 at the Rocklands Civic Centre in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town. And its conception, as an idea, is typically traced to an address by the Reverend Dr Allan Boesak at the conference of the Transvaal Anti-SAIC Committee in Lenasia six months earlier, on 23 January 1983, where he said:

“We cannot accept a ‘new deal’ which makes apartheid work even better. We cannot accept a future for our people when we had no say in it. And we cannot accept a ‘solution’ which says yes to homelands, the Group Areas Act, to laws which make us believe that we are separate and unequal.”

Although this account is factual and these were indeed seminal moments, it is an incomplete account of the provenance of the foundational principle of unity which propelled the UDF into existence. This principle of struggle had a more complex gestation than is represented in the abbreviated story of the UDF which rests on these singular points of origin.

For example, it was already in 1981, as a rejection of the tricameral system, that the Charter for Change was written and adopted by a broad front of people’s organisations in Durban:

“On 10 and 11 October 1981, 110 organisations, including the NIC, the Anti-SAIC committees, trade unions and sports organisations, met in Durban. The main speakers at the conference included Archie Gumede, Albertina Sisulu, Samson Ndou (from the General and Allied Workers’ Union) and Sisa Njikelana. The conference rejected the government’s policy of separate institutions of representation and adopted the Charter for Change which proposed guidelines for a democratic South Africa.”

It was in the Charter for Change that the earlier seeds of the principle of unity in struggle were sown. Both Gumede and Sisulu were among the founders of the UDF. The message was clear: the oppressed would not be so easily fooled and divided in Faustian pacts with apartheid.

As this excerpt from the Durban Anti-SAIC Charter for Change expressed it, “true democracy must be based on the will of all the people of South Africa in a unitary national state. All adult South Africans shall participate in the political process and institutions at every level of government.

“The present government, Bantustans, President’s Council, South African Indian Council and local advisory bodies reinforce domination and exploitation by a minority and exclude the possibility of establishing a people’s democracy.”

Belhar Confession

I want to also attend to the Belhar Confession as another somewhat forgotten antecedent of the UDF which inspired its founding principle of the unity of the oppressed in the Struggle for liberation from apartheid, a principal that underpinned the more well-known values of the UDF of democracy, non-racialism and non-sexism. This was a radically new principle at that time which galvanised a revitalised mode of activism inside the country when the apartheid regime was at the height of its power.

Those who would preach a divisive political message, especially in the context of an already fractured polity, have surely forgotten the hard-won principle of unity that sustained our activism in the UDF.

The Belhar Confession was first drafted in 1982 in Belhar on the Cape Flats as a result of deliberations between the Dutch Reformed churches for so-called coloured (DRMC), black (DRCA) and Indian (RCA) Christians – the euphemistic “dogter kerke” (daughter churches) under the “moeder kerk” (mother church), the whites-only NG Kerk.

This contextual engagement on the unity of the church, which had begun in the late 1970s, centred “on apartheid, racism, the migrant labour system, apartheid laws… played a critical role in the ultimate drafting of the Belhar Confession.” (Mary-Anne Plaatjies van Huffel, “The Belhar Confession: Born in the Struggle Against Apartheid in Southern Africa”).

Read more in Daily Maverick: The contribution of the UDF and People’s Power to our understandings of freedom (Part One)

As a result, the 1982 DRMC Synod declared that apartheid constituted a status confessionis. This statement denounced apartheid as a heresy (Agenda en Handelinge NGSK 1982:21). A committee, consisting of two ministers on the Synod, Allan Boesak and Isak Mentor, and three UWC theologians, Dirkie Smit, Jaap Durand and Gustav Bam, was appointed to draft the Belhar Confession.  

According to Plaatjies van Huffel: “Within one day the committee presented the Synod with a draft; according to Murray la Vita, a journalist from Die Burger, Professor Smit played a pivotal role in the drafting [process]. The Confession of Belhar was born in a moment of truth and dealt with three issues: (1) the unity of the church; (2) reconciliation in Christ; and (3) the justice of God.”

The Belhar Confession was emphatic on the principle of unity and the duty of the church:

“That this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the Church and must be resisted.

“That the Church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the Church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

“That the Church as the possession of God must stand where He stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the Church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.” (Excerpts from the Belhar Confession, drafted in 1982 in Belhar, Cape Town).

The Belhar Confession was formally ratified and adopted on 26 September 1986 in Belhar and went on to become part of the doctrinal standards of reformed churches worldwide, alongside the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Belgic Confession (1559) and the Canons of Dort (1619) – a remarkable achievement.

As a 16-year-old Christian anti-apartheid activist, I witnessed the adoption in 1986 in the company of pastors from Pretoria and with Alta Kritzinger (my former Sunday school teacher) who served on the Women’s Desk of the Belydende Kring (BK) at that time. I recall the occasion and the fiery speech by Boesak to announce the adoption which kindled the spark of our later activism in the UDF.

Enduring rebuke

The Charter for Change, the Belhar Confession and the UDF Declaration were all part of the gestation of the principle of the unity of the oppressed. This principle still stands as a rebuke to those who would seek to co-opt the oppressed by dividing them. It is a clarion call against the neoliberal principle of “every man for himself” which has become so definitive of our time.

However, it is also a stern rebuke to those who speak for the oppressed yet seek to pursue their own selfish ends by sowing chauvinistic divisions among them.

Read more in Daily Maverick: UDF to use 40th anniversary as a call to action to ‘reclaim our democracy’

Those who would preach a divisive political message, especially in the context of an already fractured polity, have surely forgotten the hard-won principle of unity that sustained our activism in the UDF. Identity politics of every stripe, the political manipulation of the people, the fractiousness of competing causes, and the ignoble pursuit of personal ambitions are all entirely anathema to this principle.

This article is not merely to reminisce nor even to set the record straight.

It is much more for the sake of recovering a principle of deep solidarity that may inspire us – the erstwhile comrades of the UDF – to once again take up the urgent struggle against contemporary despair and injustice in all its forms. That is our calling as progressive activists who want to recover something of the UDF for the sake of a country on the precipice.

True unity in struggle is the only recourse of the oppressed since injustice was always and still is perpetrated and perpetuated by the powerful through division and separation.

Only those who hold fast to this sacred principle of solidarity and strive to nurture it can lay claim to the ethos of the UDF – an ethos that we dare not relinquish in the ongoing struggle for the higher virtues of justice, well-being and peace in our land.

“We, the freedom-loving people of South Africa, say with one voice to the whole world that we cherish the vision of a united democratic South Africa based on the will of the people. We will strive for unity of all people through united action against the evils of apartheid… and in our march to a free and just South Africa we are guided by these noble ideals; we stand for the creation of a true democracy in which all South Africans will participate in the government of our country, stand for a single, non-racial, unfragmented South Africa, a South Africa free of Bantustans and Group Areas. We say that all forms of oppression and exploitation must end.” – Excerpt from the UDF Declaration, 20 August 1983, Mitchells Plain, Cape Town. DM


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  • Johan Buys says:

    It would be interesting to hear about the end of the UDF from the author. How it was convinced to disband while the SACP, Cosatu and ANC got to live on…

    Is there a record of how and why that decision was taken?

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