Youth and the National Liberation Struggle

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UDF Affiliates

Women organisations worked with and within the UDF, giving voice to issues that affected women?s lives. Poster: Silkscreen, issued by the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw), 1984. SAHA Collection

The United Democratic Front?s Launch in Cape Town in 1983 was attended by delegates of over 565 organizations from, in the main, three of the UDF?s strongholds: Cape Town, Natal and the (former) Transvaal. There were also a few affiliates from the Eastern and Southern Cape, the Cape West Coast, the (former) Orange Free State, as well as a delegation from the Border region. At the peak of the UDF membership in 1987, there were some 700 local, regional and national affiliates. These affiliate organizations then, represented a wide spectrum geographically and socially. What united them was more than just their common opposition to the constitutional reforms of the government. Activists who were either supporters or clandestine members of the African National Congress led most affiliates. While it is impossible to ascertain the true numbers of members of the United Democratic Front or its affiliate members, one commentator pointed out ?? it is necessary to focus on the support the UDF was able to command, rather than membership, to determine the mass base of the organization?.

This support that the UDF had, came from its affiliate organizations. While the proposed constitutional changes did act as a catalyst for the formation of the UDF, the actual genesis of the UDF lay in five strands of activity that followed the SOWETO uprising and subsequent banning of the Black Consciousness movement in the late 70s. These strands of activity came from student and youth organizations, trade union organizations, civic organizations, women?s organizations and Indian politics. By 1983 the need to galvanize and focus the country?s broad yet diverse base of anti-apartheid opposition groups, was apparent and arguably unavoidable.

Student and Youth Organizations:

By the late 1970s, a number of student organizations had been formed in the wake of the banning of Black Consciousness-aligned organizations. What was significant was that the student organizations were the first to adopt the Freedom Charter and to call for unity in action with other organizations. At the beginning of the 1980s, almost one hundred thousand children from Coloured and African schools as well as students from five black college campuses boycotted classes between April 1980 and January 1981. Soon the focus had broadened to include community issues which saw them participate in rent increase protests, consumer boycotts, the establishment of youth congresses in an effort to organize unemployed youth as well as engaging in the politics of inclusion with white students. What became clear was that the events of June 16 1976 had all-important consequences in that there emerged a new class of young leaders who had broken the silence of older generations.

Trade Union Organizations

When the government legally recognized black Unions in 1979, union membership grew from 808 000 to just under 1.5 million by 1984. Between 1979 and 1981, the number of strikes increased from 101 to 342. There emerged two types of unions, the more formal, structured unions and a new type of trade unionism, community unions. Whilst community unions adopted a more political approach, with their view being that workplace interests are inseparable from community interests, the more ‘traditional’ unions emphasized strong shop floor organization on a factory-by-factory basis, highly professional leadership, democratic structures, and a concern with confining their efforts to workplace issues. By 1985 the distinction between the two groups ended with the formation of an umbrella trade union organization, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

Civic Organizations:

Civic organizations were township groups that developed around local issues. The township of SOWETO saw the first modern civic organization being formed. However it was to be in the Eastern Cape, Port Elizabeth and the Western Cape, where ‘civics’ were to take root. Civics tackled ‘bread and butter issues’ such as rent, municipal services, public transportation and poor recreational and child-care facilities.

Women’s Organizations:

Women’s organizations played a significant role in popular struggles and campaigns during the 1980s. Their struggles were rooted in local protests against housing shortages, high rents, increase in transportation costs, and lack of social services and Bantu education. Most Women’s organizations provided a platform for women to articulate their grievances in a political context and to take a lead in political activities. Their objective within the UDF was to draw women as a united group into the broad liberation struggle.

Other Organizations:

These included political organizations, like the Natal Indian Congress, as well as sports and religious organizations. There were some 73 such organizations present at the launch of the UDF.

Last updated : 28-May-2015

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