The Conflict between the AZAPO and the UDF - popular violence in the 1980s and 1990s

An injured man during clashes between police, army, Azapo and the ANC in Bekkersdal township, 1994. Source: African Media Online

Popular violence in the decade between 1984 and 1993 is well documented. Existing literature on this brutally violent chapter in the history of the liberation struggle focuses largely on the conflict between the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Equally significant was the bloody confrontation between the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) and the UDF. This feature examines this violent conflict, an intriguing episode as it pitted two liberation movements against each other.

Contemporary accounts of the conflict between AZAPO and the UDF emphasise the ideological divide as the root cause. A closer examination of the conflict reveals the existence of powerful local tensions that reinforced and were in turn reinforced by the divide between AZAPO and the UDF. In what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) characterised as “war between AZAPO and the UDF in Soweto”, local tensions were as significant – if not more so – as ideological differences. This feature traces the origins and development of the ideological divide between AZAPO and the UDF. It then considers the ways in which this ideological divide shaped and influenced the conflict between AZAPO and the UDF in Soweto from 1984 to 1993.

At its inception in 1979 AZAPO adopted the Black Consciousness (BC) philosophy of the Black People’s Convention (BPC). In the first four years of its existence from 1979 to 1983, AZAPO included in its ranks activists increasingly drawn to non-racialism as articulated in the Freedom Charter. These included Curtis Nkondo, president in 1979 and sacked in 1980 for exhibiting what was referred to as “charterist tendencies”. Nkondo was elected president “in the mistaken belief that he was either PAC-inclined [Pan Africanist Congress]or would unite different groups” (Seekings, Jeremy, The UDF: A History of the United Democratic Front in South Africa, 1983-1991, p.36).

During 1981 tensions between Charterists and adherents of BC escalated within AZAPO. Charterists proposed a commemoration service for victims of a South African Defence Force (SADF) raid in Mozambique, but AZAPO’s leadership rejected the proposal. Again in May the Soweto branch of AZAPO proposed a boycott of the apartheid government’s 20th anniversary celebration of Republic day. The initiative was organised by a broad front making up the Anti Republic Commemoration Committee, which included whites in its ranks. This proposal, too, was rejected by the AZAPO leadership. The campaign went ahead anyway, signalling the growing popularity of Charterists inside AZAPO.

During 1982 Charterists were asserting themselves in civic associations, student organisations and trade unions. A broad front comprising the African National Congress (ANC), PAC-aligned formations and AZAPO, to be known as Maluti, was proposed. This was reported to have been suggested by the ANC in Swaziland and backed by Winnie Mandela. The proposal was communicated to Charterists in key centres across South Africa by MK Malefane – an associate of Mandela who claimed to be acting as her agent during her stay in Brandfort.

Charterists in Cape Town viewed the proposal with suspicion, fearing it would undermine the principles of non-racialism enshrined in the Freedom Charter. In Natal Malefane approached Archie Gumede, at the time the most senior ANC member who was active during the 1950s, with the proposal. While Gumede appeared to be considering its merits, the Soweto branch – led by Popo Molefe – rejected the idea. It is at this stage that the idea of a broad front made up of Charterists came to be considered a priority. Such a front was formed in April 1983, and became known as the UDF.

Founded in Mitchell’s Plain in Cape Town, the UDF was at its inception widely supported in the area. Local issues in Cape Town and other parts of the region were shaped by state reforms that culminated in the creation of the Tricameral Parliament. Coloured communities faced with the prospect of being co-opted into apartheid structures formed a number of civic bodies to oppose the measures. Many were mobilised against the Labour Party, poised to take part in the envisaged constitutional reforms to be implemented in 1983.

In the Eastern Cape Charterists became active in the resistance movement ahead of the formation of UDF in 1983. The Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation (PEBCO) adopted the Freedom Charter at its inception in 1979. AZAPO too had a significantly large following in the area. This could be associated with the legacy of Steve Biko and the influence of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Indeed, as popular violence spread to areas across South Africa, there were skirmishes between AZAPO and the UDF in the Eastern Cape. While, the conflict may have been ideological, there is no doubting the fact that it was also shaped by localized tensions that were reinforced by the ideological divide.

In Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) the UDF’s most formidable foe, apart from security agencies, was the IFP. It was here that the most brutal conflict between black political formations took place. AZAPO also had a measure of support in the African townships of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Skirmishes between AZAPO and the UDF in the region were reported, but the conflict was overshadowed by the widely documented war between the UDF and the IFP.

In all three regions, the Western and Eastern Cape and Natal, conflict between AZAPO and the UDF was less intense than it was in Soweto. In the case of the Western Cape and Natal, AZAPO was dwarfed by the existence of larger political formations that opposed the UDF, either in heated political discourse or through violent attacks and counter-attacks. Here too localised tensions shaped and were in turn shaped by the ideological conflict between AZAPO and the UDF.  

In Soweto the conflict between AZAPO and the UDF was fiercest and probably accounted for more casualties than elsewhere in the country. The conflict broke out during the winter of 1986, at the height of the school boycott. It also marked Soweto’s entry into the pattern of popular violence that had been going in other parts of the country since September 1984.

Support for AZAPO and the UDF was evenly spread across Soweto. However, some locations were overwhelmingly UDF-aligned, while others were considered AZAPO strongholds. For instance, UDF enjoyed massive support in Diepkloof, Orlando West, Meadowlands, Dube and Rockville. AZAPO, on the other hand, was particularly strong in Orlando East, Dlamini, Chiawelo, Zola, Naledi and Emdeni. The situation was made more complex by the fact that AZAPO supporters were found in UDF-aligned locations and vice versa. 

The quiescence that distinguished Soweto from other flashpoints of popular violence in the early 1980s was broken by a confrontation involving members of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) in Diepkloof and a youth gang from Orlando known as “Ma-Kabasa”. Members of COSAS in Madibane High School, Namedi High School and Bopa Senatle High School attacked a house belonging to a drug dealer in Diepkloof with links to the “Ma-Kabasa”. COSAS led a march of students to the drug dealer’s house and set it on fire. Three members of the Ma-Kabasa group found at the house were doused with petrol and set alight.

In retaliation, Ma-Kabasa prowled the streets of Diepkloof, carrying out drive-by shootings on residents. This led to a reign of terror in which residents were attacked and shot at by members of the Ma-Kabasa. These attacks lasted for nearly three months. And because Ma-Kabasa were from Orlando, a location considered to have been an AZAPO stronghold, they were soon associated with the political formation. What started as a violent confrontation between COSAS and Ma-Kabasa soon escalated into a war between AZAPO and the UDF in Soweto.

The violence spread to Orlando West, a UDF stronghold. A house belonging to high-ranking AZAPO leader Jefferson Lengane was set alight. Members of the UDF-aligned Soweto Youth Congress (SOYCO) were blamed for the attack. Four SOYCO members – Edwin Vuyani Nkomo, Mbulelo Mabena, Msilana Ronnel Sishange and Oscar Amos Mlangeni – were abducted, tortured and murdered for burning Lengane’s house. At the TRC, three men applied for amnesty for their role in killing the four SOYCO members. The applicants – Joseph Hlasa, Anastasios Mphoreng and Ernest Thandakubona – gave details of their involvement in the attack.

The violence spread to other parts of Soweto where there was a significantly large following for AZAPO and UDF. It soon reached Dlamini and Chiawelo, both considered AZAPO strongholds. In Dlamini, several members of George Wauchope’s family were gunned down in attacks by people believed to have been aligned to the UDF. Wauchope was at one stage General Secretary of BPC and later of AZAPO. The violence spread to Zola and Emndeni, both AZAPO strongholds. Here among those attacked was the family of former AZAPO president Khehla Mthembu.

From here attacks between AZAPO and UDF followers became sporadic. By the end of 1987 and early in 1988 the focus of the violence had shifted from AZAPO and UDF to IFP against Soweto residents in general. In schools around Soweto violence became rife among a new generation of “youth gangs” known as the “Jackrollers”. They terrorised residents and were known to have abducted and raped young school girls, sometimes from their homes. This gave rise to several youth gangs made up of students, mainly COSAS members. Known as the “com-tsotsis” (a combination of activist comrades and tsotsis), they clashed with the “jackrollers”. 

It is evident that by the end of the 1980s, AZAPO’s popularity in Soweto had waned. Popular violence of the 1980s and early 1990s may have had a significant influence in the movement’s declining support leading up to the first democratic elections of 1994.

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