The first executive of the United Democratic Front, in 1983. The empty seat in front is for Albertina Sisulu, first president of the UDF.

At a time when SA is experiencing a breakdown of trust, there are remarkable lessons parties can learn from the UDF, says Thabani Khumalo.

Pretoria - Today the United Democratic Front (UDF) celebrates its 31st anniversary. It was formed to unite hundreds of progressive organisations and co-ordinate protests and revolts against apartheid, particularly the new apartheid constitution in 1983 and the elections to the segregated Tricameral Parliament the following year.

It appealed to the white community “to help build a South Africa free from apartheid and violence”. UDF affiliates described 1988 as a year “of stress, conflict, bitterness and strife”

“When the UDF came into being in 1983, it took the message of hope and freedom to every corner of our country”, said UDF general secretary Popo Molefe in his opening remarks in Professor Jeremy Seekings’s book The UDF: A History of the United Democratic Front in South Africa, 1983-1991.

At a time when South Africa is experiencing a breakdown of trust, there are remarkable lessons the ANC, its Tripartite Alliance and opposition parties can learn from the UDF’s commitment to democracy, diversity, transparency and mandate.

There is racial mistrust which originated in the apartheid era. The gulf of mistrust between the government and citizens has culminated in service protests. It is conservatively estimated that business sits on a cash pile of more than R600 billion, which it is supposed to invest to create jobs and reduce poverty. The trust deficit between employees and employers and within unions have generated into labour protests that hinder economic progress.

The UDF’s policies and programmes were delivered within the principles of a mass democratic movement (MDM). The “mass” component was rooted in the view that the masses were the major vehicle for the national democratic revolution rather than great individuals. Organisations that form part of the UDF were based at grass-roots level. Every decision it made was discussed at length at community level and, as a result, gathered widespread support.

“Movement” referred to the support the UDF’s programmes enjoyed from community sectors, namely unions, media, academic centres, business, labour, youth, women, traditional institutions, sports, church and civil society.

The UDF’s success was due, in part, to the nurturing of tiers of leadership produced through strict adherence to internal democratic practices. The UDF used intra-party democracy to promote internal debates and self-criticism, and to nurture members’ competencies and produce capable leaders and representatives.

“That we managed to remain united after the bruising debate of December 1983 referendum suggests a high and almost incredible degree of mutual tolerance amongst UDF leaders and activists,” said Molefe.

The UDF valued diversity (cultural, racial, regional, gender, age, ideological and so on), human rights and non-racialism to read and react appropriately to political dynamics and challenges. The way in which the UDF co-ordinated several hundred organisations that had never worked together before was proof of its organisational skills and ability.

Former UDF leaders showed us that to be a revolutionary is to be a principled, disciplined, selfless, strategic and practical leader; a nation builder, peacemaker and an activist devoted to serving others and providing strategic and practical leadership. This is the new heroism that we require from all political leaderships and memberships.

Young people were treasured by the UDF. It understood that investing in the next generation of leadership was the only way to develop responsible and reasoned future leaders.

“They sought to channel the insurrectionary militancy of the youth in constructive and sustainable directions. ‘People power’ was an exercise in self-discipline as well as a mechanism for creating pressure on the state,” says Seekings.

The UDF’s strengths were top-quality communication, engagement and accountability that inspired confidence, passion and trust.

As society changes, there is a less of a need for political parties to take more care in how their brands are perceived, to be more in tune with changing voter principles and expectations and to position their leaders and messages to appeal to the increasingly sophisticated and impatient electorate. Hence our political parties can learn a lot from the monumental “rhetoric and practices” of the UDF.

* Thabani Khumalo is a political and communication strategist with the Durban think tank Marketing Services. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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