United Democratic Front (UDF)

Township Uprising, 1984-1985

On 3 September the Tricameral Parliament opened in Cape Town while protest demonstrations began in the Transvaal, marking the start of the longest and most widespread period of black resistance to while rule. The Lekoa and Evaton Town Councils? idea to raise tariffs for municipal services caused the demonstrations and stayaways in the Vaal Triangle. The Vaal Civic Association organised the stayaway, school boycott and march for 3 September 1984, which led to clashes with both police and township councillors, and left thirty people dead. The marchers also looted shops, set fire to houses and killed 4 councillors. By the end of the year almost 150 people had been killed in political violence, which increased to 600 by September 1985 as the revolts spread across the country and the government declared a State of Emergency.

The demonstration on 3 September was not the first protest caused by local circumstances, bus fare increases and similar across the country. Although the UDF played no direct role in these protests, the increased resistance and awareness brough about by them did affect the people. The UDF at this stage was still only thinking along the lines of affiliate-based campaigns and resistance against the state, and did not plan to get involved in township militancy. The UDF was aware of the civic problems affecting people, and mentioned these in speeches in order to get support for national campaigns, but it felt such issues were the concern of local organisations. It was also more concerned with coloured and Indian issues surrounding the Tricameral parliament, and did not pay much attention to black townships at this time. Some activists were aware of the UDF?s standpoint, and sometimes even discouraged UDF involvement.

June 1976, Soweto Youth Riots. Picture: Bailey's African History Archives.

The UDF took little notice of township revolts in the first months of 1984, and only started to get involved as a result of police violence and state repression. The state however placed a lot of the blame for the revolts on the UDF, and began to arrest and detain leaders of the UDF in late 1984. State repression of the UDF meant that it could only meet once in the last five months of 1984. At the November meeting the main focus was however the form and direction of the UDF, not the revolts. The UDF felt sure that, as in 1976, the revolts would not be able to continue without grassroot organisation. The UDF felt it should rather focus on state repression and the school boycott, which were both national issues.

The lead in the revolts was therefore taken by Charterists. Many of the affiliates of the UDF did not support the distant position of the UDF and would rather it had taken a more confrontational position. The uprising spread rapidly, and was accompanied by looting and vandalism. Police presence in the areas caused further riots. On 30 October about 30 organisations, many of them affiliates of the UDF, formed the Transvaal Regional Stayaway Committee. The main strategy used in this period was stayaway- and an important stayaway was called for in the Transvaal on 5 and 6 November. Although the UDF initially did not get involved in the call, the Transvaal UDF did endorse the call in early November. The strike was very effective, with numbers of between 300 000 and 800 000 staying home, and unions being active in organisation. After the success of the stayaway, the UDF felt it was time to reconsider its position. It realised it had not reacted quickly enough, and that others had now taken the lead. It wanted to rectify this situation, but continued to follow rather than a lead the riots. The UDF, and the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), did not support a second call for a strike as they both felt that it had already been shown that they had the power in their hands. The UDF rather supported a call for a ?black Christmas? to mourn those who had died in revolts and those in detention. The call was not for a consumer boycott as such, but rather for people to show self-sacrifice through not purchasing luxuries and not holding parties from 16-26 December.

In early 1985 the UDF was still very aware of the problems it was facing with regard to direction and strategy. It was becoming clear that the UDF was not as accountable to its affiliates as had been expected, and that it was starting to act more like a movement than like a front. Many also wanted the UDF to have more autonomy and to be able to make decisions on its own- with the affiliates following it rather than it following the affiliates. This led to a streamlining of national and regional structures, and a move towards greater militancy as it decided to involve itself in existing political struggles, although organisation remained important.

The UDF also began to move closer to its black ties, although non-racialism was still of utmost importance. In this way the UDF started playing a bigger role in the townships, and used funerals as an opportunity to address people. School boycotts were another form of protest that appeared continually after the 1976 uprising. By the end of 1984 there were about 220 000 children absent from school in various parts of the country. Parents become concerned with the situation, and the Soweto Parent?s Crisis Committee was formed in 1986 to try and solve the problem. The UDF leadership, and in particular Popo Molefe, was against the continuation of the school boycott, and felt discussions should be started with the state on this issue. In this respect they faced opposition from Congress of South African Students (COSAS), a key affiliate. Although many students returned to school in January 1985, there were still as many as 70 000 boycotting in March.

March saw the explosion of resistance in the Eastern Cape after the organisation of a ?black weekend? of consumer boycott and stayaway from 16-17 March. Once again the UDF played no role in the organisation of the event. Violence escalated, with police killing about 20 people on their way to a funeral on 21 March. This resulted in more riots, the killing of a councillor and is family, and mass action around the funerals, which were attended by between 35 000 and 60 000 people. The UDF condemned the police violence and called for a day of mourning, but also called for non-violence on the side of the people, unless it was ?defensive violence?.

The government increased its attacks on the UDF, and arrested leaders in preparation for the Pietermaritzburg Treason Trial. The state stopped the UDF and some affiliates from holding indoor meetings, while outdoor meetings were already prohibited. Molefe and Terror Lekota managed to avoid arrest until late April, when they were arrested together with Moss Chikane and detained until the Delmas Treason Trial. Killings by the security police increased. The UDF continued to attempt to connect the local struggle to the national struggle, and to focus on organisation rather then on leading the people?s riots. The first National General Council of the UDF since its formation was held in April, and discussion on strategy and form continued.