United Democratic Front (UDF)

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”People’s Power!”, 1986

In January 1986 the UDF met the African National Congress (ANC) for talks in Stockholm. It was at these talks that the position and future role of the UDF became clearer. These were the first detailed discussions to take place between the two groups on strategy and tactics. The ANC highlighted the way forward though two streams- 'people's war' and negotiation. It wanted the UDF to increase pressure inside the county through better organisation and working together with Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and more whites. The ANC also wanted to establish better links between itself and the UDF, and told UDF leaders to try and avoid arrest at all costs.

The UDF felt revived after the meeting and made decisions regarding organisation and its role in directing the struggle inside the country. The UDF now realised the importance of the 'people's power' in pushing resistance forward. Organisation at local level soon began in the Eastern Cape, with the formation of street and area committees, which soon spread to the PWV (now Gauteng) and other areas. The UDF did not involve itself on the local level, but focused on linking groups, conscientising people, increasing local development and directing the overall struggle.

In early March the State of Emergency was lifted, allowing for more open discussion of people's power. By this time popular committees and people's courts had sprung in some areas, and had even taken over governance of the community for a short while in some areas. 'Pavement politics' became very important as a way of promoting discipline and organisation together with confronting the state, but the UDF became concerned with the excesses and violence of the people's courts.

People's power was the theme at the national conference held in Durban over the Easter weekend. Here it was discussed how it was time to move the balance of forces in the favour of the people, but how discipline and control were necessary. Ungovernability alone would not give the power to the people as nobody had control in a situation of ungovernability. People needed to take political control in their township, factory and school despite the state's military superiority.

The UDF also began to play a more prominent role in the organisation of protest in the townships, and to some extent in the rural areas. Many Charterist movements were brought under the UDF, with the exception of trade unions and educational organisations. The UDF was reorganised and made plans for resistance on a more national level, although this was not always possible as crises in various areas continually diverted attention. New organisations, often affiliated to the UDF, sprang up continually as resistance evolved. The number of locally organised protests meant that national coordination became less important, so the UDF began to focus on civic organisations. It felt that these organisations could organise on a local level, contain radical youth and continue the struggle if the UDF got banned. It was also difficult for the state to repress civic organisations. Attempts at coordinated action among the civic groups continued, and workshops were arranged, but were not always very successful. Issues surrounding coordination continued to be discussed and debated.Despite a lack of national coordination, on a local level stayaways, consumer boycotts, rent boycotts and other campaigns continued to take place. UDF attempts at national consumer boycotts, rent boycotts and campaigns against influx control came to nothing.

The UDF played an indirect role in the continuation of the education struggle, and formed a Commission on People's Education. Protest remained concentrated in urban areas, with most rural areas still lacking organisation. This was however not the case in Sekhukhuneland, in the homeland Lebowa, which had also shown political awareness in the 1950s and 1960s.The UDF was trying to move into more rural areas, and in 1986 managed to organise in the Northern Transvaal, mainly around the University of the North. Organisation however remained weak and isolated from the UDF in the PWV area. Rural people were not accustomed to the UDF, and mainly knew of it through newspapers. Between February and April 1986 a large part of Sekhukhuneland became ungovernable, but the actual involvement of the UDF was minimal. The protests did not progress further after state repression.

There were also cases of protest against the homeland system in other homelands, but again the UDF again was not actively involved. By the end of 1986 the UDF was becoming increasingly aware of the potential of the rural areas, and saw the need for mobilising and organising them. As riots increased, so did repression. This repression did not only come from security police, but also from vigilante groups that were often connected to either homeland leaders or township councillors. The police were pleased about the development of these groups and the violence that resulted. UDF supporters often killed traitors and collaborators. One particularly horrible method of murder was necklacing, where a car tyre, filled with petrol or diesel, was hung around the victim's neck and then set alight. It was believed that this would show others what would happen to them if they collaborated.

These acts led to the development of even more vigilante groups. The amount of support the vigilantes received differed from area to area, but was particularly high in Natal and Kwa-Zulu, where Inkatha had much support and the Indian UDF leadership did not really understand black dynamics, and in Cape Town where coloured UDF leadership faced the same problem. In Natal, the leadership decided to become more black orientated in 1986, but faced problems due to lack of real organisation and the forming of rival Charterist groups by those who felt marginalized by the UDF.

Slowly, during 1986, organisation was stabilised and attacks by vigilantes decreased. In Cape Town, violence erupted in mid-1986 as a result of forced removals out of Old Crossroads. The UDF rejected the move, but did not fully understand the dynamics of the squatter area. In May security forces, with the support of vigilantes, performed a very brutal forced removal with 100 people dying and 70 000 being left homeless. The UDF did not react immediately, and took a week to issue a public statement.In early 1986 the UDF again restructured in order to deal effectively with the partial State of Emergency. It was also felt that the UDF needed to adapt now to working underground before more government repression began. Other reasons for restructuring were an increase in financial resources and the change in strategy towards organising campaigns around people's power.

The UDF found that the most effective method was to employ more full-time organisers on regional level, and give them more power in making decisions. There was however also centralisation of power as national leadership expanded. Media and political education remained national activities, largely run and organised underground. Financial accountability became an objective so as to stop criticism and rivalry over money between regions.

The UDF did still receive criticism for its organisation, now also because it was organising itself more like a party than a front. Affiliates no longer had the same role, and many were weakened when their leaders were incorporated more formally into UDF leadership. Restructuring did however improve the position of the UDF. At the end of 1985 its role was still quite minor, but it now took the leading role inside the country.

The most important achievement in 1986 for the UDF was managing to prolong the people's revolt. In 1976 - 1977 the uprising had not managed to sustain itself, and had given in to state repression. The UDF focused in early 1986 on the power of the people and on the people's revolt as the way forward. As people from a much wider base got involved in the revolts, they moved forward and kept momentum. By mid- 1986 the UDF had managed to show the state the power of the people, and pressure on the apartheid state increased. The state did still have the upper-hand when it came to military power, and it was this that the state increasingly relied on, as was seen in the passing of the Safety Amendment Act and the declaration of a national State of Emergency on 12 June 1986.

Last updated : 14-Jun-2016

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

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