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No mass rallies marked the UDF’s 30th anniversary but the values of the movement are worth revisiting, writes Ryland Fisher
Sitting at the Rocklands Civic Centre on Tuesday morning, attending a televised business briefing on the 30th anniversary of the United Democratic Front (UDF), I could not help but think that the government, the ANC, and especially former UDF activists, had missed an opportunity.
The UDF was formed in the Rocklands hall on August 20, 1983, as a front to oppose the government’s plans to introduce a tricameral system in which coloureds and Indians would have voting rights in separate parliaments to whites. Africans would still be expected to vote in the homelands.
It was good that the organisers of Tuesday’s breakfast had been able to lure Popo Molefe, former UDF national general secretary and subsequently the premier of North West, away from his business dealings as chairman of Lereko Investments Holdings, to share his memories of the UDF with the crowd who had gathered in the hall where 30 years ago history was made.
Molefe did his best – at short notice, I believe – to reflect on the history of the UDF and its importance in our struggle for freedom.
But it was clear that Molefe’s co-panellists on stage, newly appointed Human Settlements Minister Connie September, and Deputy Minister of International Relations and ANC Western Cape chairman, Marius Fransman, were not able to add too much to the discussion by way of reminiscing about the UDF. September was a young, peripheral activist at the time of the UDF launch and Fransman was in his early teens, so he hardly has any recollection of the formation of this powerful organisation.
The SABC’s Peter Ndoro, who hosted the breakfast, struggled to get everyone into reminiscing mode. He asked Leila Issel, who, as an eight-year-old, famously spoke on behalf of her father, Johnny Issel, at the launch of the UDF, to speak about that moment. She did, but apparently reluctantly, and said that she actually wanted to ask a question rather than merely reflect on what happened 30 years ago.
She proceeded to speak passionately about the quality of education, which impacted on her children, and how the democratic government has failed South Africans, including “the daughter of Johnny Issel”.
It was clear from the questions and comments at the breakfast that we have moved on, in many ways, in the Western Cape, but not always in a good way. We have become more sectarian and cannot think further than our own political agendas. We also cannot think further than the issues that affect us directly. Fransman, for instance, used the breakfast to attack the DA administration in the Western Cape, as he does at every opportunity.
The UDF, while focusing on bread-and-butter issues in the communities where it was represented throughout South Africa, always had a focus on national and international issues. The front’s slogan, after all, was “UDF Unites! Apartheid Divides!” This was an acknowledgment that most of the problems in our society could be traced back to apartheid and were interlinked.
It was not good enough merely to oppose the tricameral parliament. You also had to oppose forced removals; the conscription of young whites into the apartheid army; and you had to fight for the right of all South Africans to have access to decent housing, land, education, justice and so on.
The breakfast on Tuesday was relatively low-key and this is where the opportunity was missed.
The 30th anniversary of the UDF was a good opportunity to reflect on how far we have come as a country and how much we still have to do. It was also a good opportunity to mobilise what I call “expired activists” and draw on their rich memory and experience.
There are many people who, like me, were activists in the UDF in the 1980s, but stepped aside when the ANC was unbanned.
Many of us have now raised children and made our mark in different spheres of society. Many are also looking for ways to make a contribution to society, but not in a party political manner.
I was a young political activist/journalist when the UDF was launched and I remember sitting on the rafters above the stage of the Rocklands Civic Centre because there was no other place where I could comfortably follow proceedings as up to 15 000 people packed the hall. Speakers at the launch included such Struggle stalwarts as Helen Joseph, Francis Baard, Archie Gumede, Oscar Mpetha, Samson Ndou and George Sewpershad, along with younger activists like Aubrey Mokoena and the Rev Frank Chikane.
Leila Issel was the youngest speaker and spoke on behalf of her father, Johnny, 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, I knew 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 (South African Indian Council) Committee in January 1983.
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 the organisations that were forced to operate from exile. The ANC was banned, of course, and any organisations openly aligning itself to it and its aims would also have been banned with almost immediate effect.
From focusing its attentions on the tricameral parliament, which was launched in 1983 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 continual 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, because it was formed out of community, youth, women’s, workers’, religious, sport and other organisations.
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, maybe sensing that it could pose a threat to South Africa’s oldest liberation movement.
In some ways, I was not surprised that the UDF’s birthday was celebrated in such a low-key manner, given the suspicion with which the UDF has always been viewed by some people within the exile section of the ANC.
There is also the concern 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 have been 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 former 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 made 30 years ago. It is a good barometer of what still needs to be done. One of the key lessons we can learn from the UDF was its commitment to democracy and transparency. Every decision of the UDF was discussed at length at community level and, as a result, gathered large support when implemented. Despite being 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.
After attending the breakfast, I sought out a quiet corner to reflect on the impact the UDF had on my life. I thought about the many comrades who sacrificed their lives so that we can be free today. And I tried to think of ways in which I can help to achieve the South Africa for which they were prepared to lay down their lives.
* Ryland Fisher is a former editor of the Cape Times and The New Age.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers