Memories can be deceiving: the things we never discuss about the UDF

Memory is a tricky business and the older one gets, the more difficult it becomes to depend on one’s memory. As we celebrated the 33rd birthday of the United Democratic Front (UDF) yesterday, I have been surprised by the unspoilt memories many people have of what was a glorious movement.

But it was not without its faults and there are many questions around the UDF that many of us who were involved refuse to entertain. We prefer to only visit the good memories.

The UDF was a broad coalition of organisations launched on August 20, 1983 in opposition to moves by the apartheid government to introduce self-rule for coloureds and Indians while fine-tuning laws about how black people were governed in South Africa. It is so easy to forget 1983 was still a time of homelands where blacks were supposed to govern themselves and that they were not welcome, by apartheid decree, in most of the major metros in South Africa.

The UDF fought against this and brought together the most diverse group of organisations – from supposedly liberal groups such as the Black Sash, a group of white women who picketed outside Parliament regularly, to trade unions and youth and community groups which often aligned themselves with the then-banned ANC. But the UDF also included church and sports groups and even the odd stokvel.

From the start, the UDF did everything big. Its launch, inside and outside the Rocklands Civic Centre in Mitchells Plain, attracted about 15 000 people from around the country and those in attendance were treated to the spectacular political oratory of leaders such as Dr Allan Boesak, Aubrey Mokoena, Helen Joseph, Sister Bernard Ncube and others.


In the mid- to late-1980s there was a real buzz in the Western Cape and especially in Mitchells Plain. There was a feeling that most people supported the UDF and, as such, the Struggle. This feeling was based on the huge rallies the UDF organised and the success of publicity stunts such as the million signature campaign. But it was also based on the support protest marches and other activities generated, especially from 1985 onwards.

This is partly why, when the ANC lost the first democratic elections in 1994 to the National Party in the Western Cape, there was intense soul-searching about where things had gone wrong – surely the people who supported the UDF would naturally also support the ANC.

The ANC’s leaders, recently returned from exile, had of course in their wisdom decided the UDF should be closed down because it was merely a proxy for the ANC and no longer needed to exist now that the “real leaders” had come back home.

With hindsight, this was probably a short-sighted decision. While elements inside the UDF supported the ANC, the front as a whole remained non-aligned and had a specific purpose, which was redefined over time, to oppose apartheid reforms.

This did not justify the ANC making an assumption the support the UDF enjoyed would naturally gravitate towards it.

The UDF could have played a major role in effectively “softening up” people for the ANC. They could have been people’s first interaction with non-racialism, leading to an easier acceptance of the ANC, especially if the UDF was not going to contest elections.

There were also significant differences between the ANC and UDF. One of these was that they operated very differently. The ANC, as a banned organisation, operated clandestinely from neighbouring countries and overseas. The UDF operated on the ground in communities throughout South Africa and had established a culture of democracy. In fact, we used to joke about being “demo-crazy”. All decisions of the UDF were discussed in a bottom-up manner.

ANC-supporting activists within the UDF were torn between these two styles of operation: one where decisions were taken mostly by consensus and the top-down style of the ANC, necessitated by security fears.

A question many people have refused to ask, let alone answer is: how popular was the UDF really?

Why did the huge attendance at political rallies, especially in the so-called coloured areas, not translate into votes for the ANC?

Rallies can be deceptive and are often just shows of support meant to intimidate your opposition. But if you have 100 000 people living in a community and 10 000 people attend your rally, you still have90 000 who may or may not support you. You will only know how they feel after election day.

A few years ago I worked in Ghana where, ahead of national elections, the ruling party spent a lot of money on billboards, adverts in newspapers and on radio and television and I attended, a few days before the elections, a huge rally which attracted at least 100 000 people.

It was an impressive show of support. Unfortunately, it did not translate into votes and they lost the election.

The moral of this story is that you should never judge your support based on attendance at rallies but rather on the feedback you receive when you do door-to-door work in communities.

The other question people rarely ask about the UDF is how much non-racialism existed in its structures and whether this was effectively transmitted into the diverse communities in the Western Cape and South Africa.

In the Western Cape, because of the nature of the population, it was natural the UDF would operate strongly in so-called coloured areas, but it also operated in African and white areas.

It was not uncommon for hundreds of activists to go into an area on a Saturday or Sunday morning to sell Grassroots community newspaper or talk to people about signing the million signature petition. The activists were drawn from all areas of the Western Cape and appeared to operate without any visible tensions and divisions.

But one thing we never asked ourselves at the time was how much of this non-racialism we experienced was accepted by the communities we came from. Was the so-called coloured community, for instance, comfortable with all this interaction with blacks and whites? The same could be asked of the white and black communities with relation to the others who we accepted in the spirit of non-racialism.

We cannot dismiss the damage caused by apartheid and colonialism which forcibly separated our communities, forcing us to live apart, study apart and date and marry only people who looked like and sounded like us.

Trevor Oosterwyk, the ANC’s election co-ordinator in Mitchells Plain in 1994, told me when I interviewed him for my book, Race, that he took the rejection by Mitchells Plain voters personally and realised while activists like himself had adopted a “black” identity, they had not taken their community along with them on this journey.

I agree and disagree with Oosterwyk. I think we also need to look at how much acceptance of non-racialism there was in communities that had been separated from each other for decades, no centuries.

The point I am trying to make is that, in politics, we often believe our own propaganda and we could have been misled by the apparent support for the UDF and the non-racial culture we all were desperate to adopt.

In some ways, one can only be truly non-racial if we operate from level playing fields, excuse the cliché. As long as we have situations where there are still townships inhabited mainly by poor so-called coloured or black people and suburbs inhabited by mainly white or middle-class people, we will struggle to inculcate true non-racialism.

When everyone has equal access to opportunities, whether in education, housing, employment, sports or wealth creation, then we can start talking about living in a non-racial society. Non-racism does not appear to be a priority for people who are poor and who have to worry about where their next loaf of bread is going to come from.

History has a way of repeating itself and I have long ago learnt politicians especially do not learn from our past.

But if activists from yesteryear reflect honestly on the UDF and share their reflections with current activists, we might find solutions to some of the issues bedevilling politics and our society today. That is, of course, if we allow these reflections to interfere with the good memories that we treasure.

(First published in the Weekend Argus on Sunday 21 August 2016)