CONSULT a history book and it will probably tell you that the United Democratic Front (UDF), launched forty years ago on 20 August 1983, was the internal wing of the ANC. It is true that many of its individual members were ANC sympathisers and the UDF promoted the Freedom Charter, but the claim that the UDF was simply a wing of the ANC is false history. Indeed, in many ways the UDF was the very opposite of the ANC and it threatened a radical shift in political practice. Its four main constituencies were the townships (including those in remoter areas), the Indian and coloured communities, organised workers, and the small white progressive community.

First of all, it was truly non-racial. This is something the ANC only embraced fully after the Kabwe conference of 1985 and to which its commitment has often been less than half-hearted. For the UDF, non-racism – a belief in the inherent worth of individuals ‒ was not just ideological but a lived part of its basic culture. In this sense the UDF was closer to black consciousness principles than the ANC’s African nationalism. Second, the UDF prized accountability; so much so that action was often hard to achieve given the need for mandates.

Third, as a front of affiliated organisations rooted in communities there was no cult of personality, nor messiah-like figures, in the UDF. And fourth, the UDF did not support armed struggle, although some of its affiliates later embraced thuggery and criminality often as a result of provocation and with leadership disabled by detention without trial. By contrast, the ANC in exile was authoritarian, elitist and corrupt and often abused human rights, although some of its transgressions were encouraged by the apartheid regime.

The seeds of the UDF were laid in the 1970s with grassroots trade unionism and student protest, new forms of political activism that were hard to suppress. It was conceived at an anti-apartheid meeting in Johannesburg in January 1983, set up its first region in May in Natal, and was launched three months later in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town, supported by nearly 600 organisations. It had no constitution, but was bound together by principles. There was a strong religious heritage personified by two key figures, Allan Boesak and Frank Chikane, who spoke of the reclamation of God-given rights. Practical considerations aside, the UDF was forced into popular front mode because non-racial political parties were proscribed by legislation: the Prohibition of Political Interference Act had forced the Liberal Party to disband in 1968.

The UDF is remembered by its activists for hope for the future and a tangible sense of non-racial solidarity under the slogan ‘UDF unites, apartheid divides’; sentiments hard to credit in today’s South Africa. These produced extraordinary levels of involvement and commitment and for some people a political home that once lost has never been reclaimed, although activism and experience in some cases was successfully redirected into specific civil society organisations. The grim realities of state capture cried out for a broad front approach.

Until 1990 internal resistance to apartheid was led by the UDF ‒ and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) founded two years later. But with the glasnost of 1990 it was not they who negotiated with the apartheid government, but the banned and exiled ANC and the South African Communist Party. The latter in particular had all the theoretical answers and was not interested in community opinion. In the words of journalist Max du Preez, the ANC ‘spat out’ the culture of the UDF. It was a challenge and serious rival, in particular to the communists who had a track record of undermining grassroots democracy (as, for example, during the Durban strikes of 1973). Organisations were forced to disband in compliance with mysterious orders from ‘higher structures’. This suited both the ANC and the National Party, which had a great deal in common, most notably their preference for nationalism, black and white respectively. They understood each other only too well.

The consequence was the loss of authentic community voices and a narrowing of real political participation. The creation by opportunists and crooks in the ANC of a moral vacuum within which to operate various rackets goes a long way to explaining the state of South Africa today. This includes its re-racialisation and the rise of right-wing populism, neo-fascism, under the leadership of Julius Malema. Exactly how we moved from the not unrealistic hopes of 1983 to the disillusionment of 2013 is no mystery and the explanations are unpalatable.

South Africa, it has often been remarked, rarely misses the opportunity to miss an opportunity. After World War Two the chance to build a black middle class was thrown away by white racists. Forty-five years later the potential for participative democracy was deliberately destroyed by nationalists and authoritarians.