‘UDF unites, apartheid divides’: around this ringing slogan the United Democratic Front was launched on 20 August 1983. The South African security state was at its most active, and turning to increasingly violent and illegal means to sustain apartheid. Yet activists look back at that time with great nostalgia; to commitment and solidarity in a noble cause and a real hope that a different sort of society could be built in South Africa. They knew history was in the making. The UDF’s declaration put it plainly: ‘We … stand shoulder to shoulder in our common struggle’. Max du Preez, a passionate chronicler of the UDF, has written of people’s ‘dreams of freedom, dignity, democracy and justice.’

The orator of the moment was the charismatic priest Allan Boesak who, in a style reminiscent of Martin Luther King, was able to blend a prophetic message with politics and bring together different ideologies: ‘now is the time’, he declared. The UDF did not emerge out of the blue: it was a direct consequence of lessons learned from the 1976 Soweto Uprising and calls from various quarters for a united front against apartheid. The options were armed struggle and revival of banned political organisations; or development of grassroots organisations and trade unions to tackle community and workplace issues in a way that the government would find it impossible to suppress.

The Soweto Uprising had shown that a relatively well-educated, increasingly urbanised and politicised population was overcoming its fear of a repressive government and would find a means to overthrow apartheid. The government knew this; and so did the opposition. An authoritarian regime is at its most vulnerable at a time of socio-economic change and political adaptation and this one also faced an economic recession in the early 1980s. There was considerable, but fragmented, opposition political activity with the fear that government would drive a wedge between organisations from different communities.

It was the UDF that mobilised collective action, assisted by creative alternative newspapers such as Grassroots. Historians Gail Gerhart and Clive Glaser describe the Mitchell’s Plain launch as ‘a joyous and rambling affair’ involving 1 000 regional delegates and thousands more supporters. From the outset the UDF prioritised the search for common ground and inclusivity amongst its supporters ranging from liberal humanist, to social democrat, socialist and Marxist. And it did so in a way that was both fundamentally democratic and politically astute by making its affiliates the driving force of the front. As long as they did not stray beyond the broad parameters defined by the UDF’s working guidelines (it deliberately had no constitution) affiliates were free to pursue their own destiny. This broad coalition, to summarise Boesak’s words at the launch, was claiming the God-given rights of its people: the theological roots of the anti-apartheid struggle were clearly evident in the UDF.

Popo Molefe, first secretary-general of the UDF, points out that its formation ‘shifted decisively the balance of power against the P.W. Botha regime’ and that its short, eight-year history was marked by ‘resilience and dedication’ in the pursuit of political accountability and people’s empowerment through the strength of a growing civil society. Much of the appeal of the UDF lay in its social movement characteristics and symbolism of a range of ideals, most crucially non-racialism and accountability. Jeremy Seekings argues that there were many UDFs that contributed through diversity to the Front’s strength. At one extreme it was at the forefront of township revolt; at the other involved in human rights monitoring in universities; filling many roles in between. And it accommodated the varying needs of different regions. Its genius lay in acceptance of a reasonable common denominator. Mobilisation in 1983 was rapid in the main urban centres, but the UDF then spread to small towns in rural South Africa where it was particularly influential. However, not all affiliates behaved in democratic fashion, a tendency later exacerbated by the stresses of operating under an Emergency.

This thirtieth anniversary of the UDF is a good point at which to examine its relationship with the ANC. It has become common wisdom to state that the former was the internal wing of the latter. This suited the government of the day, just as it now suits the ANC to claim credit for the successes of the UDF. But it is essentially a myth. Many members of UDF affiliates were of course ANC supporters and its stalwarts were particularly prominent amongst the national and provincial leadership. A number of affiliates such as the Congress of South African Students and Natal Indian Congress openly supported the ANC. The UDF identified with the liberation and civil rights demands of the Freedom Charter. But it was not a front whose strings were pulled by the ANC. In common with many anti-apartheid organisations the ANC supported a broad opposition alliance and welcomed the UDF, but there were no directives from Lusaka.

Indeed the appeal of the UDF was that it was diametrically different from the ANC. It was not a tight-knit organisation. Instead its origins were largely in gradualism, a belief in patient alliance building around human rights that required flexibility totally alien to the rigid democratic centralism of the ANC. The UDF’s colours of yellow, red and black were distinctively and deliberately different. While the UDF was prone to radical rhetoric it was also capable of persuasive behaviour.

Much of what happened in those turbulent years of the mid-1980s was beyond any central organisational control. The UDF’s four main constituencies were people of the townships, the Indian and Coloured communities, unionised workers and a small progressive white population. Assisting this broad spectrum was foreign funding and support and significant technological change relating to communications and media.

Under the State of Emergency of 1986−1990 the government took out the regional leadership of the UDF, seeking to weaken local affiliates. While this failed, at national level the UDF, deprived of its connection with the grassroots, did begin to sound and behave more like a vanguard movement. However, it possessed the moral stature to censure Winnie Madikizela-Mandela over her thuggish football club.

Ultimately it was undermined by the ANC, ironically behaving as if the UDF were an internal front. In du Preez’s words, it ‘[spat] out the UDF’s political culture.’ From 1991 mysterious orders from ‘national structures’ were passed down that UDF affiliates were to be rolled up and absorbed within the ANC. That this happened with remarkable ease is testimony to the unhappy fact that many prominent people saw which way the wind was blowing and where their personal interests lay. It may explain in part why the most liberal passage of South African history was so effectively hijacked by crooks and career opportunists who laid the foundations for the corruption, racketeering, predatory capitalism and lack of respect for the Constitution characteristic of South Africa today. But this leaves du Preez’s tantalising question: what would the country be like today if Botha’s government had possessed the courage to negotiate with the UDF?

Natal was the first area to set up a regional committee of the UDF on 14 May 1983. The national launch was held in Cape Town as the Western Cape was politically the most complex area. Its troika of presidents − Archie Gumede, Albertina Sisulu and Oscar Mpetha − reflected a compromise between the main regions.

This article was first published in The Witness on 20 August 2013 and entitled ‘Free to pursue their own destiny’.

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COMMEMORATIONS can pass ‘almost unnoticed’, as Carien du Plessis put it in her article (The Witness, 28 August 2008) about the twenty-fifth anniversary of the United Democratic Front (UDF). Either they lose their meaning, or it is in the interest of powerful groups to have them forgotten. Life has changed radically and rapidly since the heyday of the UDF; it is hard to obtain a clear signal about its significance, so often wrapped up in the memories and emotions of those who were involved.

To borrow from Charles Dickens, the 1980s were the best and worst of times. After the Communist and Liberal parties, the UDF was the third truly non-racial political movement in South Africa. It was not until the Kabwe consultative conference of the ANC in 1985 that it officially became open to all. The affiliation structure of the UDF and its clear commitment to non-racialism – the belief that the inherent worth of individuals is paramount – meant that it attracted large numbers of people characterised by self-sacrifice, unselfishness, honesty and principle. Its strength lay in the fact that its members all belonged to largely voluntary grassroots organisations with credibility in local communities. They were drawn together by a commitment to broader principles such as human rights and democracy.

Many commentators, like du Plessis, stress the UDF’s links with the ANC and even go so far as to say it was a front for, or the internal wing of, the banned organisation. This is over-simplification. In some ways the loosely-organised UDF was as much of a challenge to the ANC as it was to the National Party, and a potential rival in post-apartheid South Africa. It was wound up in great haste in the early 1990s and the two nationalist parties proceeded to stitch up South African politics between them.

It is tempting to play ‘what if’ games with history. Certainly the values for which the UDF stood are light years away from the practices of the ANC today. It is indeed possible to argue that what the ANC inherited (or appropriated, depending on your historical perspective) has been betrayed. But this is a partial view in both senses of the term. The UDF also contained the seeds of some of South Africa’s current problems.

Beneath the principled statements and selfless activism were less salubrious undercurrents. Criminal activity was too often painted with a political brush: petty thieves who removed police car batteries or spare wheels became struggle heroes. Creative accounting with foreign funds for personal benefit was excused as a way of confusing the authorities. A blind eye was turned to the thuggery that accompanied various boycotts. And arrogant young activists dismissed the opinions of qualified, experienced people and even the necessity for basic organisation as irrelevant to the struggle. In these attitudes it is possible to see the seeds of present-day crime, corruption, political threats, and contempt for the rule of law and the standing of professional bodies.

Nevertheless, the broad modus operandi of the UDF looks like a lost beacon of hope today. It is reasonable to argue, for instance, that impoverishment and violence would not now be so acute if government were more firmly rooted in local communities. But above all, the quality of the UDF leadership stands in stark contrast to the opportunism that now besets the nation.

Out of a narrowing of real political participation and a moral vacuum, a self-appointed vanguard has emerged. While it involves a variety of personalities, perhaps the most interesting is Julius Malema, ANC Youth League (ANCYL) president. He is the very antithesis of the principles for which the UDF stood, yet ironically he is part of the inheritance of the disruptive, destructive world of the Congress of South African Students, a UDF affiliate. Malema has as little in common with the principled Left of South African politics as the ANCYL has with the UDF. So how should they be defined?

The recent furore over Zapiro’s rape of the law cartoon said it all. Under a Jacob Zuma presidency, Malema ranted, Jonathan Shapiro would be forced to respect the head of state. The fascist undertones are unmistakable. Malema is South Africa’s Benito Mussolini, part clown, part thug; and a politician beyond the pale whose basic vocabulary is one of raw violence.

Writing in the late 1960s, the activist and poet Dennis Brutus spoke vividly of menace in the politics of the ruling party. After the post-1994 euphoric interlude that menace is back with a vengeance. Perhaps the non-celebrated anniversary of the UDF was appropriate. But we should also recall the further words of Brutus: evil compels the commitment and involvement of principled people. It’s time they stood up on the South African Left and reclaimed the better part of their legacy.

This article was first published in The Witness on 23 September 2008 and entitled ‘Tracing the UDF’s legacy’.

Further reading: Jeremy Seekings, The UDF: A History of the United Democratic Front in South Africa, 1983−1991 (Cape Town: David Philip, 2000).