United Democratic Front (UDF)

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Disbanding, 1990-1991

With the ANC now legal, mass demands were made for a constitutional assembly to create a new non-racial, democratic, and unitary South Africa. The UDF had indeed won its main demands. 1991. Poster SAHA collection

On 2 February F.W. De Klerk announced the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party (SACP), Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and other political organisations. This ushered in a new period in the history of the ANC and of the UDF. As the ANC moved back into South Africa, the UDF needed to find its new role and position in society. Once again the UDF needed to adapt to changes in South Africa and decide on strategy and tactics. It however failed to do so and, as it decreased in size and popularity, it became clear that the need for the UDF no longer existed. The organisation disbanded in August 1991.In January 1990 the UDF began putting together the pieces of an organisation that had suffered under the State of Emergency. Leaders met against state orders to discuss the way forward and to rebuild structures. The leaders decided on a programme to follow in order to intensify the struggle. It came as a shock when only two weeks later de Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and others. The announcement was received by the UDF with joy, suspicion and confusion. The State of Emergency continued and the UDF was not quite sure what the state?s actual aim was. It also now needed to reassess its plans for the year. The first event the UDF got involved with was the release of Nelson Mandela. Soon after this many UDF leaders got involved with preparing for the ANC?s return, and were thus pulled away from UDF affairs. The ANC did however not take over the UDF offices on their return as some had expected. Instead they left the UDF to decide what role it should assume in the future. The UDF decided that to begin with it would retain its national, regional and local structures and participate in the establishment of ANC branches, working closely together with the ANC. The UDF therefore spent the first months of 1990 rebuilding its structures, and restructuring on a national level as many top leaders left the country to go and study abroad. Campaigns did continue to some extent, but generally did not prove as successful as was hoped. The UDF was not quite sure how to deal with socio-economic issues in the new political climate and did not have much success in reducing violence in townships. The biggest campaign for the year ended up focusing on the homelands and on homeland authorities, by calling for integration into South Africa as a whole. In the second half of 1990 the UDF focused more on reconstruction and less on political affairs. The UDF focused on working with and coordinating civic structures, although some of these organisations felt that the lead should rather be taken civic organisations themselves. Many new civic organisations also differed in their working method from the UDF, and they even came to resent the UDF?s actions.

By September discussions on the role of the UDF had risen again, while some already called for the dissolution of the Front. A commission was set up to look into the matter, and in February 1991 two options were presented; either the UDF disband and give their support and help to the ANC; or they continue as a civil society organisation helping with reconstruction and development. In the last year, there had also developed considerable tension between the UDF and some other Charterist organisations. It was decided in March 1991 that the UDF should rather disband, and that reconstruction should be left to a new group. The next few months were spent closing up UDF affairs and sorting out financial issues. Assets needed to be redistributed and employees retrenched. While busy with these details the lack of organisation and collapse of the UDF in certain areas became even clearer. With everything sorted out, the UDF held its final meeting on 14 August 1991 in Johannesburg.

Last updated : 14-Apr-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011

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