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I agree with the group of former leaders of the United Democratic Front (UDF) that it was totally inappropriate for a few people in Cape Town to “relaunch” that movement with the same colours and logo last week.
The UDF lasted only seven years (1983 to 1990), but in that time it united and mobilised South Africans against the apartheid system like no organisation before.
Without it, we might not have seen a negotiated settlement and democracy by 1994.
So yes, I understand that politicians such as Trevor Manuel, Valli Moosa, Jeremy Cronin, Frank Chikane, Nomaindia Mfeketo and Pravin Gordhan are annoyed by the opportunism of one Mario Wanza, a community activist from the Cape Flats, to claim ownership of that proud movement. They expressed their rejection of Wanza’s move in a letter last week.
But these politicians must have considered, when drawing up the joint letter, that the millions of citizens who associated with the UDF would think back to the 1980s and wonder anew why so much of its ideals and political culture were sacrificed when the UDF was gobbled up by the ANC in 1990.
Manuel wrote in an opinion piece after the letter that the UDF “remains an integral part of the ANC”. I suspect a majority of the millions of people who supported the UDF in loyalty and in action would ask today: So if the UDF is still regarded as part of the ANC, why have those UDF leaders now in the ANC leadership allowed the country to become such a mess that so many ordinary people lose hope in the future?
The UDF was a truly mass-based movement. It was an alliance of literally hundreds of groups, all united in their desire to end apartheid and replace it with a caring, progressive, open democracy.
It shouldn’t be romanticised, but the truth is that the UDF leadership largely remained in close touch with ordinary people and resisted the temptation facing all popular leaders to become a self-serving oligarchy. Despite extreme repression and despite being constantly harassed and infiltrated by state agencies, the UDF remained a transparent movement that was high on accountability. Non-racialism was a central pillar the UDF was built on.
Not a syrupy, unrealistic forgive-and-forget or pretending that the racial divides, inequalities and history don’t exist, but a principled and consistent commitment to overcome race; to see people as human beings before one considers their ethnic background.
It was this dedication to non-racialism that drew huge numbers of coloured, Indian and even white South Africans into the resistance to white minority rule and convinced so many that their future lay in a democratic order, rather than in racial separation.
Leaders who were seduced by power and behaved in ways contrary to the UDF’s basic political culture were disciplined and even removed. Power struggles were contained and defused.
Leaders were chosen to serve and to act on behalf of the people, not to become cult figures, narcissists, autocrats, thugs, crooks or self-enriching fat cats.
When Winnie Madikizela-|Mandela, up to 1990 the torchbearer of the Mandela name and a struggle icon in her own right, misbehaved and allowed her so-called Mandela United Football Club to terrorise the community and torture and kill in the late 1980s, UDF leaders denounced her in clear words at a public press conference.
I was the editor of one of the titles in the stable of “alternative” newspapers at the time that actively supported the cause of the UDF. We received ongoing moral and other support from the UDF leadership who encouraged us, if necessary, to break the law to bring the full truth to readers and let all voices be heard.
En kyk hoe lyk hulle nou – Manuel and Cronin were among those who vocally supported the Secrecy Bill that, in its original form, would most certainly have destroyed media freedom.
If anyone told me in the mid- to late-1980s that the UDF would one day be “an integral part” of a party that had turned its back on the masses; sold out the youth by criminally neglecting education; harboured corrupt leaders; celebrated politicians recklessly driving expensive limousines in blue-light convoys, I would probably not have believed it.
Manuel, Cronin, Mfeketo and Gordhan serve in senior ANC and government positions. I accept that they are truly concerned about the sullying of the good name of the UDF.
But they will forgive me if I’m a wee bit cynical and ask them exactly what they have done to get the ANC to stick to the UDF’s mission to bring freedom and dignity to all the people of SA.