This chapter comes from the book Class, Consciousness and Organisation: Indian Political Resistance in Durban, South Africa, 1979-1996 by Kumi Naidoo
In the early 1980s there was a revival of inter-racial alliance politics that culminated in the formation of the multi-class, non-racial United Democratic Front (UDF) on August 20, 1983. A few months before, the Black Consciousness (BC)--orientated National Forum (NF) had been established on the basis of an overt identification with the black working-class. Both these resistance coalitions reflected the need to weld together previously uncoordinated organisations around political issues. The growing politicisation of the black population was evident during this period, and unlike the situation in 1976, Indians were now more in step with resistance against the state. This mobilisation was precipitated by the government’s new constitutional proposals, and built on the increasing visibility of civics, the growing politicisation of Indian students and the successful anti-SAIC election campaign. Also, the NIC had started to identify more with the ANC, was popularising the Freedom Charter and had worked with the Release Mandela Campaign. However, conflicts between the NIC and the BC-aligned AZAPO flourished as the two organisations disagreed on the interpretations of, and ideological orientation to, ethnicity, nationalism, class and overall strategy. Meanwhile, Indian conservatives continued to harness state patronage, although their popularity was on the decline during this period.
This chapter examines the formation of the UDF and looks at the role of sporting and religious organisations in the resistance to apartheid. The Million Signature Campaign (MSC), which was the first effort in the 1980s to engage people at grassroots level in a national campaign, is also analysed. We will also evaluate the UDF’s strengths and weaknesses in Durban, and look at the domination of the UDF by some NIC leaders. This was said to have contributed to the inefficacy of the organisation in Natal. Lastly, drawing on some of my earlier work, we will examine youth resistance during this period in comparative perspective.
Ideology and the broadening of resistance politics
As both BC and non-racial organisations grew in stature and profile, there was fierce competition over the re-emergent space for anti-apartheid agitation. As the previous chapter illustrated, many activists had limited awareness of ideological differences in the period from 1977 to 1981. However, they now had to choose between Congress and BC, with the latter enjoying a rejuvenation following the release from Robben Island of luminaries like Saths Cooper and Strini Moodley. The conflict between AZAPO and the NIC was so intense that they were unable to unite even around Soweto Day commemorations. AZAPO, who refused to recognise white organisations in the liberation struggle, criticised the leadership of the NIC, saying:
In housing they have established housing action committees with leadership in the hands of the proprietal[sic] and entrepreneurial class. The transport action committees comprise many who have never used public transport in their entire sheltered lives.
The negotiation strategy of the civics was at odds with the non-collaborationist BC bodies. Civic organisations and the issues they addressed were nevertheless important vehicles of expression for the emerging political awareness of many people.
In Bayview, Chatsworth an association was formed to tackle problems like high rents, overcrowding and poor facilities. The NIC’s Mewa Ramgobin was guest speaker at the launch, which was attended by about 500 residents, and a motion condemning the SAIC was passed. However, not all members of the steering committee, which had spent months organising for the launch, supported the choice of a high profile political figure as guest. The majority of Bayview Residents Association (BRA) members later withdrew from the organisation as they felt that it had become too political. Despite these conflicts, civics provided an important avenue through which support was mobilised, and most Indian civics were keen to build links with similar bodies across racial boundaries.
The civics, which were often under the influence of NIC-aligned individuals, waged campaigns against the City Council and mobilised support around specific issues. In 1983 there was a sustained protest against fines that had been imposed on municipal tenants in low-cost housing projects in Chatsworth and Phoenix. These tenants, who were mostly pensioners, had allegedly exceeded a 400 litre-a-day quota while there were restrictions on the use of water in the province. Both the Phoenix Working Committee and the Chatsworth Housing Action Committee organised successful marches of affected residents to protest against the high fines. Civic activists organising in dwellings serviced by communal water meters were able to challenge the municipality as it was unable to accurately record water usage but persisted in handing out fines. When residents did not pay the fines, the Council installed tricklers, devices attached to taps that prevented the free flow of water. This campaign, like many others, made an impact only on a section of affected residents, and therefore there was no widespread mobilisation in the Indian townships. However, while various civic campaigns contributed to the growth and strengthening of civic bodies, Congress activists faced the challenge of linking these local struggles to the broader goal of winning political support.
When trying to shift the attention of residents from civic to political issues, activists encountered difficulty as residents feared repression and were concerned about the Communist links of the NIC. Moderates and conservatives further propagated these fears. The Graphic newspaper claimed that “some of the left leaning types within the NIC either knowingly or unwittingly play the Communist game”, and argued that if they did so “intentionally they were the enemies of our people.” This concern was echoed by BC bodies, for whom Communism was a foreign, white, and non-African ideology which had to be distrusted. AZAPO, while anti-Communist, made conscious efforts to appeal to workers. They criticised the NIC for the absence of a clear political thrust on the basis of either race or class. AZAPO, however, did not engage in any significant mass mobilisation in Durban and attracted mainly middle-class professionals and students.
A central feature of the civics between 1982 to 1984 was that they were becoming tightly-organised oligarchic structures. The focus had shifted from their operating as mass-based, local civics in 1980 and 1981 to leaders representing their organisations at the umbrella bodies to which they were affiliated. The civic movement, though, had established grassroots strength in several areas and was in a position to negotiate with local government structures. As BC activists were non-collaborationist, they found virtually no expression in the civic movement. Through working with DHAC, Indian and Coloured civics became sensitive to the problems experienced by Africans around housing and forced removals. However, as Ian Mkhize of the Joint Rent Action Committee (JORAC) recalls, there was a failure “of gigantic proportions” to consolidate a working partnership between DHAC and the African civics under JORAC.
Not all civics were sympathetic to progressive politics. At a meeting of the Newark Civic Association, the NIC’s Paul David shared a platform with an Inkatha leader despite the fact that Inkatha disallowed organisations not affiliated to it from operating in KwaZulu. At the meeting the Inkatha leader said: “The first thing was to get people organised whether it was a political party, a trade union, a welfare organisation or a civic association. It will play an important role in our struggle for liberation.” It would appear that while some local civic activists were unaware of the difference between NIC and Inkatha, others opted to remain non-aligned. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Child and Family Welfare Society became more politicised as a result of the assistance they gave to students during their boycott of classes and to residents involved in protests against the municipality. They set up clinics and collected socio-economic data so as to be able to challenge the authorities into providing cheaper rents and better facilities.
NIC support grew during this period and there was a satisfactory attendance at mass meetings, co-operation with African civics, and the reconstruction of ANC history and symbols. The NIC claimed that the “Freedom Charter still reflects the ideals of the kind of country we want.” Although it was selective in the campaigns it got involved in, the NIC took a stand on high profile issues: it condemned Israeli attacks on Palestinians, protested at the death in detention of trade unionist Neil Aggett (although only a few Indian workers responded), and spoke out against state harassment. A broad range of organisations co-operated in these campaigns, which laid the foundation for a more consolidated alliance to be formed later. Even though new relationships were forged and new partnerships were explored, the NIC remained dependent on the civics for community involvement.
In 1982 there was a substantial increase in the price of bread. A committee formed to co-ordinate protests against this increase included representatives from the NIC and CHAC. But while the anti-bread price campaign had the potential to win support and move people to action across the race divide, the NIC failed to capitalise on the issue. The NIC took it up only after a group of Chatsworth activists sent a memorandum to its executive, pleading for their involvement. The NIC’s slow and unenthusiastic response lost it an opportunity to put to the test its desire for non-racial political co-operation. It was therefore not surprising that letters in the press described the NIC as “ivory tower intellectuals” and raised the question of when they would really get to know their own people, not by condescending speeches from platforms but going to their homes and associating with them in the bars…or was that too grassroots a philosophy for...the NIC?
The debacle over the bread price campaign led to questions from activists on the appropriateness of the NIC leadership and its class and physical distance from the masses they professed to lead. These activists’ contention was that the middle-class leadership was unable to see the potential in campaigns that could harness working-class support and participation.
Pronouncements by religious leaders also reflected an incremental rise in political consciousness. Swami Navaler of the Saiva Sithantha Sungum spoke of the need for a “multi-racial community”, while the Islamic Council of South Africa stated:
all thinking people and leaders...[should] abandon their double standards and their nationalistic objectives and...consider the human race as one single unit and plan and act in the interests of the human race.
Religious organisations were a powerful determinant in the construction of social identities and needed to be won over if a progressive political message was to take root amongst Indians. However, the attempts by the NIC leadership to build relationships with the religious sector were weak, haphazard and ad-hoc. Perhaps one of the most serious organisational blunders of the Indian left was that they largely ignored religion as a social and ideological force.
This neglect was not uniform and some grassroots activists were mindful of the need to build alliances with religious structures. For example, in Chatsworth youth organisations such as Helping Hands were able to develop an alliance with local religious bodies by linking resistance discourse to religious teachings. In developing their strategies for politicisation, activists in some youth organisations were acutely aware of the general apathy towards politics. Therefore many seemingly non-political activities were undertaken in grassroots organisations headed by ANC-aligned activists. One Chatsworth youth leader asserted that:
Our attempts to position ourselves closely with religious organisations wherever this was possible did not happen by accident. It was a conscious strategy based on our reading of popular consciousness. This resulted in sporting events, welfare projects, educational programmes, and helping out at weddings and funerals. Senior activists from within and outside Chatsworth criticised us for undertaking reformist activities that aimed at alleviating the effects of apartheid rather than eradicating it. However, the logic of developing programmes and activities that recognised peoples’ consciousness levels eventually began to win currency.
Ironically, this recognition of ethnic consciousness amongst Indians, particularly those of the working-class, did not lead these youth activists, many of whom saw themselves as NIC activists, towards a stronger NIC commitment. Rather they felt that youth organisations should identify directly with the emerging non-racial national youth bodies that would bring Indian youth into contact with their counterparts across the racial-divide. This is how “confidence about non-racialism could be built”, activists argued. Furthermore, the strongly middle-class image of the leadership of the NIC did not find favour with youth from working-class backgrounds.
Despite the repression there was growing politicisation among Indians. Some of this was reflected in an editorial in the Leader which said that “the lives of black people were all politics, from the cradle to the grave”; while for whites “party politics was an academic exercise”. “For the underprivileged it was the means to privilege”. For Indians, sports probably provided the greatest politicisation. At a South African Council of Sport (SACOS) workshop aimed at building organisational coherence, various political concerns were discussed. A resolution was taken to penalise parents who enrolled their children at predominantly white schools as the law required that black children first obtain government permission to study at these institutions. The resolution also affected NIC leaders who had children attending elite institutions. SACOS maintained that their “role in sport must be seen in the context of the social, economic, and political problems confronting the disenfranchised people”. In their pronouncements and policy statements, SACOS displayed a principled militancy that belied its status as a sporting organisation. It also played an important role in politicising Indian and Coloured sportspersons. Non-racial sport, as espoused by SACOS affiliates, was enthusiastically embraced by many Indians as they were denied the privilege and opportunities that white sportspersons enjoyed. Students worked closely with the growing sports movement. The UDW-SRC put out joint publications with SACOS, and a meeting to protest against a rebel tour by the British cricket team was attended by about 1000 students.
Despite its solid organisation among Indians and Coloureds, SACOS failed to attract African sportspersons into its fold. It was also unable successfully to translate its political vision to its grassroots Indian sports administrators and sports people. A notable achievement, however, was the merger of the SACOS-affiliated Swimming Federation and the Soweto-based Swimming Association, which resulted in more Africans in SACOS ranks. The merger of the mainly African KwaZulu Football League and the Southern Natal Soccer Board, which had mostly Indian and Coloured members was an opportunity to put into practice its professed non-racialism. Difficulties arose as some Indian players were afraid to go into African townships. The KwaZulu side urged: “Come in your numbers and prove your sincerity and we will accept you.” However, some football fixtures did not work out and some African townships were inactive as there was discontent at travelling long distances to play soccer on poor quality fields.
SACOS favoured the politics of AZAPO and the Unity Movement, but when it was under pressure to formalise a relationship with AZAPO, its president said that “SACOS was a sporting organisation and not a political organisation.” However, the sports movement maintained the following principles: “non-collaboration, isolation of liberals, recognition of working-class leadership and no ethnic tags.” The political distance of the SACOS leadership from the Congress leadership which was predominant in many African townships resulted in the Indian-led SACOS being viewed with suspicion by many African organisations. This was despite the fact that many Congress activists were involved in the anti-apartheid sports movement in the 1980s.
In keeping with national trends, cultural work in Durban also reflected greater political awareness. A new theatre group’s first play was a criticism of repressive establishments. The SAIC elections were the subject of a farce staged at UDW; and another work, Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, focused on deaths in detention. Off Side, a comedy which attracted full-house attendances, criticised those supporting the constitutional proposals and raised consciousness about the government’s agenda. A cultural festival at UDW was held under the theme of redefining culture as “a means of contributing towards meaningful change in South African society” The festival was held despite the Rector’s banning of political activity on campus. Such defiance by the organisers reflected the growing resistance sweeping the country and the fact that significant numbers of Indians were being politicised.
Responses to the constitutional proposals
Constitutional developments clearly underlined the dominance of ethnic thinking in the apartheid state, and the complexity of its ethnic order. The proposed constitution had a tricameral, racially divided parliament which sought to win the collaboration of Indians and Coloureds. This reform strategy was regarded by many as a radical departure by the NP from previous political prescriptions. Long before white South Africans sanctioned tricameralism in a referendum on 2 November 1983, the wheels were set in motion for a long and intense campaign for the hearts and minds of Indians and Coloureds. The government hoped to expand its political base by co-opting Coloureds and Indians by giving them limited political rights, while ensuring that political power remained securely in the hands of whites. After two years of intense deliberation, the Presidents Council presented its proposals for constitutional restructuring. The Republic of South Africa Constitution Act of 1983 was rushed through parliament and adopted.
The SAIC was involved in debates about the constitutional reforms. Rajbansi argued that having Indian or Coloured deputy ministers would be pointless, while restrictions still remained on the free movement of Indians in the Free State. Some SAIC members recognised that any reform without African participation was doomed to failure, and said that the removal of discriminatory legislation should be one of the prerequisites for change in South Africa. However, the SAIC was not representative of the Indian community and, with its less than 10% election poll, it lacked credibility. A SAIC by-election to fill the seat of a member who resigned attracted a paltry 1.2% turnout. Meanwhile Indian local government representatives were also under pressure. In Marianhill, for example, an Action Committee successfully campaigned for the resignation of two Pinetown LAC members. There were death threats against some LAC members and in some instances, anger at the “illegitimate” government structures turned to violence.
The SAIC attempted to earn credibility by offering support to Africans threatened with eviction at St. Wendolins just outside Chatsworth, but this offer was rejected. There were suggestions that the SAIC attempts to identify with Africans were based on fear. Indo-African relations, which were not good, were a central concern of many Indians, and were used for various political objectives. In Inanda, authorities threatened to remove approximately 180,000 Africans from land reserved for Indians under the GAA. Indians who owned land were forced to evict African tenants or face prosecution. This exacerbated existing tensions, as we shall see in chapter seven, when Indo-African conflict exploded, causing deep divisions. This fear and tension formed the bedrock of political consciousness amongst Indians and would have far reaching consequences later.
The constitutional proposals created dissent in the NIC, as there was disagreement on whether or not to call for an Indian referendum. By the end of 1983 the NIC remained ambivalent despite support for a referendum by the Natal delegation at a UDF conference in October 1993. However, the government did not entertain the idea of a referendum for Indians and Coloureds, and voters were told that they could express their views in the elections. The NIC recognised that class differences would play a crucial role in determining its strategy around the election:
The groups most vulnerable to co-option are those who are most privileged and therefore who have the most to lose. This new and expanded middle-class may be enticed into sacrificing the long term future for ill-defined immediate benefits. It is our task to expose the apartheid lie and remind Indian and Coloured South Africans that their security and destiny is in national liberation and not ethnic expediency.
The NIC’s message and the anti-election campaign filtered down to various civil society organisations and contributed to the growing politicisation of Indians.
While the religious sector did not form an overt alliance with the Congress movement, its pronouncements on the constitutional proposals reflected some influence of the anti-election campaign. The Muslim Youth Movement, for example, called for a boycott of any referendum and the election. Later they expelled an Islamic Council member who stood for elections. Even the previously apolitical Hindu movement became involved in the election issue. A senior member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha resigned when the body refused to take a stand against the election. The Hindu Students Association opposed the constitutional proposals because they said the system it would create would be discriminatory and was therefore contradictory to the Hindu religion. There was a growing consciousness around the constitutional proposals which provided fertile ground for new alliances which would include a wide range of religious, sporting, worker, youth and women’s organisations.
The formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF)
The call for the formation of a united front was made at the Transvaal Anti-SAIC Committee (TASC) conference held in January 1983. Many activists believed that the decision to form a united front was “not a conscious decision taken by the ANC outside or inside” South Africa. Rather it was a result of the “broad talk that was going on” about the need for unity. A delegate at the conference recalled that there was no input from the ANC in exile about forming a front. People merely followed a call made by Reverend Allan Boesak for a united rejection of the constitutional proposals. However, on 8 January 1983 ANC President Tambo stated:
We must organise the people into strong mass democratic organisations; we must organise all revolutionaries into the underground formation of the ANC; we must organise all combatants into units of Umkhonto we Sizwe; we must organise all democratic forces into one front for national liberation.
Soon after the UDF was formed, a debate arose about the compatibility of the front’s non-racial principles with ethnically orientated political organisations, like the recently resuscitated TIC and the NIC. Terror Lekota explained that this was a realistic response to apartheid’s separation, and was an attempt to bring people into non-racial unity through joint activity. Lekota argued that “you cannot just declare non-racialism, you must build it”.
Members of the NIC played leading roles in the UDF’s formation. At the TASC conference, Paul David of the NIC motivated for the Front, stating that the NIC and TASC felt a need for broad consultation with all groups, especially after the Labour Party’s decision to participate in tricameral elections. Initially Archie Gumede, Jerry Coovadia (NIC) and Virgil Bonhomme from Natal, were elected onto the national steering committee of the UDF, but this committee was slow to get off the ground. Subsequently, other activists were recruited to revive the initiative in March 1983, and Natal was represented by Zac Yacoob, Yunus Mahomed and Jerry Coovadia, all of the NIC. The UDF’s launch in Natal in May 1983 elected the following onto its executive: Archie Gumede as President, Jerry Coovadia (NIC) as Chairperson, Virgil Bonhomme as Vice-Chairperson, Rabbi Bugwandeen (NIC) and Victoria Mxenge as treasurers, Yunus Mahomed (NIC) as secretary. Of the 14 additional members three were DHAC activists, and two others were NIC activists (Paul David and Zac Yacoob). NIC executive members Pravin Gordhan, Mewa Ramgobin, M.J. Naidoo, George Sewpersadh and A.S.Chetty, were banned at the time and could not be elected to the executive, but were involved behind the scenes. However, when Ramgobin’s banning was lifted he was elected national treasurer of the UDF. None of these NIC people, all of whom were professionals, were from the major Indian townships of Chatsworth or Phoenix. It is important to examine the circumstances surrounding the formation of the UDF to understand the disunities that later emerged. Jeremy Seekings has questioned why no one from the South African Allied Workers Union (SAAWU), a prominent Charterist union, was elected to the regional executive committee:
I have the impression that there was already some tension between two groups: the first comprised activists mostly from African areas loosely grouped in SAAWU and some youth organisations. The second based in the NIC and DHAC. The first group seems to have been marginal to the formation of the regional UDF. The second group or at least the core of it was later to be criticised of ‘cabalism’.
Non-Charterist unions were not affiliated to the regional UDF and no serious attempt was made to encourage their participation. The non-involvement of FOSATU, a major trade union federation, was due to hostility, resulting from the anti-Charterist position taken by its President Joe Foster. The non-involvement of FOSATU limited the UDF’s presence in African townships in Durban, where the union federation was well represented. AZAPO rejected invitations to join the UDF, and while rivalry between supporters sometimes led to violence, they occasionally shared platforms and picket lines in the campaign against the elections. Competition for political space in the African areas in the province led to violent clashes between the UDF and Inkatha.
Although Indians were prominent on the regional executive of the UDF, reaction from ordinary Indians was minimal. But after a series of small meetings and workshops, the UDF was launched publicly at a meeting at the Orient Hall in Durban. More than 4000 people attended this joint UDF/NIC meeting to discuss the constitutional proposals. The meeting was given impetus by the arrest earlier that day of prominent NIC leaders. They were protesting outside a meeting at Durban’s City Hall addressed by P.W. Botha. A letter writer in a local newspaper praised the 44 demonstrators and commented that “it was interesting to note that the majority of those arrested were all professional men and women well respected by our people”. Supporters from Chatsworth and other areas made up a significant proportion of the meeting. The large turnout of mostly Africans and Indians augured well for the development of non-racial actions in Natal. At this stage, the NIC had developed a network of influence that extended beyond the small coterie of Executive members and were therefore able to play a decisive role in the formation of the UDF. As, the connection between the ANC and NIC was becoming clearer, the press used it as evidence that the NIC was not the mouthpiece of the Indian community but a front for the illegal-ANC. One columnist claimed that the Freedom Charter was the bedrock of both the ANC and the NIC and that it was a communist document.
In this period the UDF began a mass media intervention on a scale not seen in the past. It bought advertising space in the commercial press and in regional papers, published its own newspaper (UDF News), used posters, stickers, banners, T-shirts, caps and other paraphernalia. It also began to develop its own capacity to produce media. Alternate, anti-apartheid media began to emerge, especially from the student sector and this gave the UDF favourable coverage. While these developments were significant, the UDF still could not compete with the state and commercial media in trying to reach black communities. Nevertheless, many of the new youth and civic organisations embraced the UDF. SACOS on the other hand chose to slate “popular fronts that were prepared to work and be led by white liberals”. The revival of the TIC, however, was met with unease and many youths saw this as a retrograde step in conflict with non-racialism. This development strained relations further with BC organisations. Significantly, BC groupings did experience a growth in support at UDW, which was seen by some as the unchallenged support base of the NIC. This growth was short lived as the advent of the UDF signalled the decline of BC organisations in the province.
While the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW) was a key affiliate of the UDF, the role of women in politics, however, remained stereotypical, even in certain progressive quarters. Ela Ramgobin, a NOW/NIC Executive member, played on the stereotype when she called on mothers, wives and sisters to protest against the new constitution because it would lead to the conscription of their men. Another statement from Congress-aligned women said:
Apartheid has brought nothing but heartache. High rents, increased GST, no houses, forced removals, inadequate and inferior education. These plague us constantly...we have to show our opposition to this...we have to unite as mothers, sisters, wives and friends. We are the backbone and strength of our community.
The image promoted was that of mothers, sisters and wives with a concern for civic issues. When SACOS refused to admit a squash body that did not permit women members, all the male Muslim members of their squash squad walked out in protest. SACOS later relented and admitted the club. Gender inequality reigned supreme notwithstanding the growing politicisation of Indians during this period.
The NIC was attacked for its ambivalence and perceived double standards by the Graphic newspaper whose proprietor, Pat Poovalingum, was an election candidate. Adverse comments included the claim that community leaders who had previously worked closely with the NIC were now wary of them, because of their deviation from their stand of non-participation. Letters were published from parents expressing anger at the NIC’s role in the 1980 school boycotts, while their own children attended private schools. The Graphic published the views of NIC stalwarts in an attempt to sway the undecided anti-apartheid proponents:
The NIC no longer speaks for the masses...because there was an indication that people everywhere would be going to the polls, they were trying to bolster their sagging campaigns with youth elements trying to frighten candidates and voters with shows of force.
While the NIC made sound arguments against voting, it did repeatedly warn about alienating African people. One letter pointed out that it “was clear even to the ignoramus, that the new constitution was nothing else but a recipe for violence and chaos. This was quite evident when 20 million Africans were left out”. Part of the NIC’s campaign could have been perceived as scare tactics and may have contributed to heightened fears.
Ela Ramgobin warned that the new constitution would conscript their Indian sons to fight against Africans on the border. This would lead to the perception that Indians were the oppressors along with whites. The new constitution provided for conscription of Coloured and Indian youth. The Minister of Internal Affairs said that voting rights must lead to an increase in responsibilities, “which means they will have to defend these rights”. Gandhi continued to be a rallying point for the NIC, much to the anger of BC and some activists within its own ranks. In anti-election propaganda, the NIC repeatedly stated that Gandhi would have opposed the elections, and thus implied that all other Indians should follow suit. The NIC placed a full page advertisement asking, “Mahatma Gandhi, would he have voted? No!”. For the NIC, achieving a balance between building non-racialism and responding to fear of Africans appeared to be difficult.
Million signature campaign
In early 1984 the UDF launched its most ambitious project - the Million Signature Campaign (MSC). This campaign, - probably inspired by the UDF’s public claim that it had a million members - was the first national effort of the Front. It hoped that the campaign would have organisational and mobilisational benefits. Non-racial teams of activists visited people in their homes, explained the UDF and asked for a signature of support. Curnick Ndlovu, released from Robben Island the year before, was the organiser of the campaign in Natal, assisted by former fellow prisoner, Billy Nair (NIC), Khetso Gordhan (NIC) and Lechesa Tsenoli. The campaign enlisted volunteers from civic, youth and student organisations including NUSAS and AZASO. These volunteers were trained on the arguments of the anti-election campaign, how to conduct house visits, and how to deal with hostility.
In Indian areas, activists had information tables at shopping areas, where they asked shoppers to sign the pledge and a limited number of house visits were also done. New activists, coming mostly from the university student population, were drawn into the UDF by involvement in this work. The high profile nature of this campaign introduced the UDF into Indian areas and helped to allay some of the fears that people had about political involvement. It also allayed the fears of new activists when engaging in political debate with the public. In spite of these small organisational gains, the campaign in Indian areas failed to meet its targets. The prominence of Indian UDF leadership appeared to make no impact on the community at large. At this stage, these leaders began to be more involved in national political work within the UDF and moved away from direct involvement in Indian areas. Visits into African townships were organised, but very few Indian activists joined in this activity. In Durban, a large non-racial group of activists was arrested under the Litter Act during the Campaign and this received sympathy from the public.
Despite the initial excitement generated by the campaign, it never really took off. Seekings reports that only 30 000 signatures (out of the targeted 300 000) were collected in Natal after the first 4 months. Nationally, only 300 000 signatures were collected out of the targeted 1 million. However, organisers of the campaign believed that it helped to strengthen the UDF even though “criticisms were voiced of the alleged domination of the campaign by certain Indian activists”. In Indian areas the campaign did not make a significant impact on the UDF’s popularity. The one gain was that it provided space for the growing number of youth activists to become involved in a direct political campaign.
Comparing youth resistance
Structural conditions, youth resistance and the boundaries of realistic expectation By the 1980s the conditions in urban areas led to the development of strong sectoral organisations and sites of struggles. Youth and students, for example were actively involved in struggles for better education, while industrial workers were engaged in battles for recognition of their trade unions. These sectors reflected distinguishable sites of struggle, organisational formations and areas of differentiation and discord.
The majority of youth were primary and secondary school students. The age differences between these groups meant different possibilities for co-option by the state, and conversely, conscientisation by the resistance movement. The primary school students generally took longer to grasp political issues and the need for organisation. Their ability to comprehend more complex political questions, such as ideological differences between student movements, was also limited. Racial and other stratification within the education system ensured primary and secondary school students had an inequitable educational terrain.
Unequal budgetary allocations on a racial basis, a myriad of education departments, racially specific curricula and a lack of non-racial school sporting leagues ensured that there was virtually no interaction by primary and high school students across the racial divide.
Control of Indian and Coloured education was transferred from centrally run educational authorities to the Indian and Coloured houses of the newly established tricameral parliament. African education in the city was divided even further. Townships such as Umlazi and KwaMashu, that were part of KwaZulu, had their schools administered by the bantustan authorities in Ulundi. In the Port Natal Administration Board, African education was administered by the Department of Education and Training, which catered for Africans in “white” or “non-homeland” areas. Education was not compulsory for African children, except at those primary schools “where the school committees requested it”. But education was compulsory for Indian and Coloured children up to age sixteen.
The ideological agenda of the state varied under the different departments. The hegemonic actors in the Indian and Coloured school system were preoccupied with maintaining stability. They therefore wished to legitimise participation politics and politicians, and saw the schools as important mechanisms of control. In KwaZulu students were required to take a course, euphemistically entitled “Good Citizenship”, which propagated the programme of Inkatha and attacked the efforts of the liberation movement. The education system attempted to indoctrinate children in apartheid values and to legitimise the status quo. Pro-government politicians were invited to school functions; the navy band performed at schools; the South African flag was raised on “historically significant” days; the official national anthem (Die Stem), was taught to students; Afrikaans was a compulsory subject; and so on. Whilst the state’s general strategy prevailed in most communities, the ways in which it was applied varied, as did its effects upon students. It was probably least effective amongst African youth, and most effective amongst Indians and Coloureds. This was partly due to the greater militancy in African areas. This also presented a major difficulty in forging non-racial student unity.:
The division of the education system ensured that the struggles amongst black students were also divided. Coloured and Indian resistance lagged behind that of their African counterparts. The president of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), Lulu Johnson, noted:
Now we are confronted with a situation in which our counterparts in the “Coloured” and “Indian” communities will be expected to show their contribution. Therefore...we must not allow “Coloured” and “Indian” education systems to be treated as separate entities of our struggles.
Nevertheless, Coloured and Indian education remained separate and was noted for its stability. COSAS failed to make significant inroads into both Indian and Coloured areas.
There was growing unemployment in the region among youth, who had the potential of becoming a vital force of resistance or a destructive anti-social force. By 1982 there was acknowledgement by youth leaders that it was necessary to organise unemployed youth. Despite this, African youth focused on educational struggle, since it offered greater mobilisational and organisational possibilities. Furthermore, unemployed youth were very difficult to organise and given their daily struggle for survival, many were not prepared to join youth organisations. However, in numerous situations, the “lumpen youth” were the major force in mini-insurrectionary activity, provoking government accusations that such protests were the work of “out of school thugs” rather than legitimate political protest.
The conditions of unemployed youth also differed across the racial divide. Indian and Coloured youth were more likely to be supported by family incomes than were their African counterparts. There were also fewer and less complicated administrative procedures for Indian and Coloured youth to acquire the meagre unemployment benefits offered by the state. Many African youth who had newly arrived from rural areas, and were in the Durban region without valid documents, generally avoided high-profile political activity lest they be deported back to the homeland areas.
During this period ever-growing material dissatisfaction determined the terrain of resistance. As Mark Swilling wrote:
The new generation of African youth was the product of...a system of education that was designed to train them for wage labour; an economy that could no longer provide them with sufficient job opportunities; and a culture of political quiescence that they had begun to reject.
State strategy was running into several problems, as the contradiction highlighted in the above quotation suggests. The sanctions-hit economy was unable to absorb the large pool of wage labour trainees that were being churned out by the flawed education system. Social indicators in the 1980s also pointed to an increase in youth suicides, alcoholism, drug addiction and gang violence. These social problems were not the preserve of unemployed youth - they prevailed in the society as a whole.
School students and unemployed youth experienced virtually no interaction across the racial divide. However, the gradual relaxation of rigid, racially-based admissions at tertiary institutions and residential segregation offered student activists the possibility of translating their non-racial rhetoric into non-racial action. Tertiary students, the smallest youth constituency, were a significant political force. Intense political activity on campuses led to increasing political awareness and commitment. Colin Bundy suggested that
The political education of school or college students is often spectacularly rapid. Initial involvement over local issues translates into activism that links up with broader, non-educational movements.
However, the differentiated socialisation processes experienced by African, Indian and Coloured youth influenced their political perspectives and activities at tertiary institutions. Most African students found Coloured and especially Indian students lacking in militancy, while Indian and Coloured students found African militancy frightening and overbearing.
The political impact of young workers increased steadily after the historic 1973 Durban workers’ strikes. In some areas workers served as a vital link between the community-based youth organisations and the trade unions. Some analyses suggested that there were two “poles” to township resistance: youth and the workers. In the 1970s, African workers began joining the militant anti-apartheid trade unions in large numbers. Consequently, some Indian and Coloured workers joined one of the two major socialist-inclined federations, the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).
While different strata of youth responded to their specific daily realities, the commonalities that existed across the racial divide, such as unemployment, disenfranchisement, oppressive and restrictive education curricula, and poor life opportunities, offered more than a tenuous possibility for united campaigns among blacks. At the same time, the specific manifestation of these problems ensured that youth solidarity, fought for despite an onslaught of repression, was elusive. Nevertheless, activists in the 1980s had the benefit of being able to draw on a history of resistance and earlier youth activism in Durban.
The formation of the Youth Forum: An attempt at regional co-ordination
In 1982 the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) called on school-leavers to create community-based organisations. After the ANC declared 1981 the “Year of the Youth”, a concerted effort was put into building ideological support for young people. Previously some activists had complained that they were regarded merely as a workforce to do the menial tasks of anti-apartheid organising at the expense of organising independent programmes. Natal had the least developed youth organisations. This was a major decline from the 1970s, when Natal was the first region to form a regional youth co-ordinating structure. The destabilising activities of Inkatha, combined with a range of subjective weaknesses within the organisations and their leadership were the main reasons for this decline.
Early in 1983 the Black Development Programme (BDP) of Diakonia, a Christian church agency in Durban, convened a meeting of a wide range of youth organisations. The assembly was called following numerous approaches by individual youth organisations to the co-ordinator of the BDP. He explained that the appeals for help usually revolved around requests for resources and “youth leadership training workshops”. This initial meeting attracted about 30 delegates from a broad range of youth organisations. COSAS, though not a youth group as such, also participated in the discussions. Many of the participants came from nascent youth structures or even youth structures that were yet to be created. The ideological and social basis of the different participants was diverse. Some of the groups were church-based, others were social clubs with no political programme nor intention to have one, and the majority were political youth groups which were mostly Charterist-aligned. Before the meeting there had been little emphasis on inter-youth club activity.
The gathering resolved to unite youth groups, and a steering committee was set up to organise a youth leadership training workshop as an initial step in that direction. One of the objectives of the workshop was to break down racial barriers. It was the first time that most of the youth present had spent five consecutive days with contemporaries from other cultural backgrounds. The workshop emphasised that breaking down the structural divisions imposed by apartheid would be a difficult task. The gathering of youth leaders was a novelty, indicating that the substantial exchanges between the rank-and-file members of youth organisations would not be attained easily. For youth who had not yet been recruited into organisations, the problem appeared even graver.
Although broadly sympathetic to the UDF, the Youth Forum (YF) opted not to affiliate to the Front when it was formed in 1983. The YF argued that affiliating the relatively few and new youth organisations would not benefit the UDF. Nor would it be helpful to the formation of a Natal Youth Congress, which was its ultimate goal. A further consideration was the low level of politicisation of the rank-and-file members in these newly formed youth organisations. This indicated that many, especially Indian and Coloured, youth were not ready for affiliation to the UDF. There was a clear difference in the political awareness of leadership and ordinary membership in youth organisations in the Indian and Coloured areas. However, individual youth groups did affiliate to the UDF directly or, in some cases, to both the YF and the UDF. This created a tension between those who had affiliated to the UDF and those who had not. YF and Umkhonto we Sizwe activist, David Madurai, noted:
This was unfortunate since this decision was not based on an antagonism to the UDF; rather, it was predicated on an assessment that certain youth organisations had memberships which were not ready for an overt political profile.
These young activists were beginning to ask questions about ideology, about their history and about strategies for political struggle. The YF attempted to encourage this but also supported the campaigns led by the UDF. The majority of its members were associated with UDF affiliates. The YF’s constituency was highly differentiated. There were stark differences in the material conditions confronting the different groups: access to jobs, resources to advance organisation, intensities of repression, political histories, poverty levels, education systems, recreational facilities, cultural imperatives and so on. In Lamontville, for example, the level of militancy was high and many youths had left to join the ANC in exile. In Umlazi the local Youth League was constrained by Inkatha’s attempt to regain the ground it had lost since 1980. The Chatsworth youth structures were operating in less repressive circumstances but lacked a history of progressive mass organisations. Organising in Chatsworth was affected by the greater complacency and political indifference. This was influenced by the fear of involvement in political activity and a lower level of material dissatisfaction as compared to their African counterparts. In the Coloured township of Wentworth, the situation was similar to that in Chatsworth, with probably less fear of repression. However, organisation was constrained by a range of local factors resulting from intensive gang warfare that
divided the youth and cast a shadow of violence and fear over the township.
In January 1984 COSAS convened a national gathering of youth organisations. The YF represented Natal youth. The assembly was one of the first attempts to form a national youth organisation since the banning of the BC-aligned National Youth Organisation (NAYO) in 1977. The conference set in motion the long process towards the formation of the South African Youth Congress (SAYCO) in March 1987. Some delegates believed that the national body should be formed at that conference. It was decided that this would be a premature move since most of the regions were still weak on the ground. One delegate argued against having organisations with grand national names but with shaky infrastructure at the local level. Durban delegates, including representatives from Indian youth organisations, supported this sentiment enthusiastically.
In 1984 organising youth was neglected in favour of full-scale participation in campaigns against the tricameral parliament and the Koornhof Bills. At local level, day-to-day activities diminished to make space for various tasks around these campaigns and youth co-ordination was badly affected. However, some groups reiterated the importance of sustaining organisation and keeping it on course. In these cases the nurturing of the less politicised youth continued despite the pressing tasks of the anti-election campaign. YF activists argued that mobilisational and organisational imperatives should be balanced, and that it was foolhardy to allow painstakingly-built structures to become enervated through neglect. Organisations that achieved this balance emerged strengthened after the August elections.
In the aftermath of the elections the YF decided to embark on a process of decentralisation to strengthen grassroots structures and encourage sub-regional interaction. These sub-regional experiments offered possibilities for non-racial praxis amongst the various youth groups around Durban which was divided into three sub-regions. The YF promoted democratic practices, accountable and shared leadership, decentralisation of tasks and a greater level of sharing of skills acquired in the process of struggle. Youth leaders saw these organisations as training grounds for developing effective, skilled, well-trained and disciplined youth activists for present and future resistance. The achievement of non-racial youth co-ordination was hindered not only by economic, political and socio-cultural differences among its membership, but also by the deliberate exacerbation of these cleavages by the state. The organisation was further constrained by the commitment of the leadership to creating a participatory approach which would incorporate a large number of youth in the region.
Youth, gender and language
Gender issues were also significant in determining the nature of youth resistance. Young women, historically less involved in overt oppositional activities, increasingly asserted themselves in an urban environment where traditional values and practices were being eroded. Young women were visible in many organisational activities. However, the gender breakdown of youth organisations showed a disproportionate number of males, although some of the most important and articulate leaders were women.
In certain townships there were near violent confrontations between “comrades” (of both sexes, but especially men) and young women, amid charges that there had been “girls who had been sleeping with [SADF] soldiers”. A Durban women’s collective wrote:
While women’s positions as mothers and mediators in the community brought them into the forefront of struggle, the same cannot be said for young girls. Socialisation and their greater responsibility for household labour militate against girls playing a leading role. One informant said: “With the youth, boys dominate events...The girls do not participate as much as the boys because they have to cook and do housework, and cannot attend meetings late at night because parents worry and think they will get pregnant.”
It was suggested that while mothers were creating space for themselves, they may have been limiting it for their daughters. Some Indian women activists found it easier to get parental permission to go to the movies or discos rather than to political meetings. Furthermore, young women were often regarded as impressionable and unreliable. They sometimes became caught in the crossfire, as for example in Chesterville, where girls were accused of spying for the “A-Team” (a vigilante group) and the police. Young girls, marginalised from positions of influence at home and in organisations often stayed aloof from politics, and this made them easy prey for accusations such as those made above. One informant suggested that soldiers were sometimes deliberately spreading such rumours in order to sow conflict and division. However, he conceded that there were also probably cases of young women sleeping with soldiers. This issue would not have affected Indian areas since there was never full scale army occupation.
In their rhetoric COSAS and the other youth organisations supported an anti-sexist position. They proclaimed four points to guide them in taking decisions. These were non-racialism, democracy, unity, and non-sexism. In practice this was difficult to implement. Nevertheless, the statement of intent was seen as a positive sign that the emancipation of women would be taken more seriously by resistance organisations. Although racist and sexist notions had permeated the minds of youth, there was hope that in future these limitations would be overcome.
Language barriers formed a major impediment to inter-racial contact. Most of Durban’s Indian and Coloured youth were unable to speak Zulu although African activists, at leadership level, were often able to speak English. Several African activists stated that they were not comfortable with speaking English even though they could comprehend. Translation from English into Zulu, and vice versa, was therefore necessary resulting in very long meetings. This became a problem because youth lived in far out areas badly served by public transport. Meetings therefore had to be held over weekends taking leaders away from their constituencies where they had to carry out important grassroots organising. Language as a dividing issue and language as an organisational impediment have not been given sufficient attention in other studies. A deeper understanding of the impact of multi-lingualism on building joint non-racial campaigns and programmes will help us to understand the past and deal with the present.
This period witnessed a shift to the left of many Indian civil society formations. The radicalisation of these organisations created the basis for the emergence of an alliance like the UDF. Some of these shifts were sponsored directly by AZAPO and the NIC, while a fair amount of organisation building was driven by independent local effort. The NIC’s profile during this period increased and its stature was boosted. This was aided by the opening up of political space for resistance activity which was brought about by the constitutional restructuring processes. Some NIC leaders graduated from being provincial leaders to becoming national figures within the resistance movement, particularly within the UDF.
The broad programme of the UDF gave localised youth and civic struggles a broader canvas of resistance. The popularisation of the ANC continued to gain ground with the ascendancy of the ANC’s political programme, the Freedom Charter. However, no activists from the Indian townships of Chatsworth and Phoenix were drawn, at any significant level, into the broader leadership of the UDF in the region. The result was that township activists were thus relegated to solely first-level interventions and did not develop broader political skills as a result of exposure to the macro political environment of Natal. The NIC involvement in the UDF already began to cause tensions with African activists who felt marginalised by the dominance of the NIC.
Class divisions amongst Indians shaped different responses to the formation of the UDF and NF. Few Indians gravitated towards these organisations and tended to be mainly middle-class and students. The absence of strong trade unions with Indian membership was a contributory factor. Overall, the failure to draw in the input and support of the trade unions resulted in the limited participation of worker leaders and workers in the UDF leadership in Natal. Furthermore, while organisation might have been strengthened in Indian areas, mobilisation appeared to have dropped during this period with fewer rallies, and less public participation in resistance activity.
The building of non-racialism in practice proved an elusive goal. While the avenues of sport and youth resistance represented the best possibilities for non-racial programmes, in practice the task was confronted by many objective and subjective challenges. The NIC did not engage with either sport or youth organisations in a creative manner, even though these sectors offered the greatest mass involvement. It would appear that the NIC did not wish to invest its energies in organisational processes that it did not directly control. As I will argue later, this approach contributed to the organisational decline of the NIC.
During the same period, the state embarked on a vigorous agenda to co-opt Indians. This was reflected at a macro-level with the constitutional restructuring process, and also by an intensification of the state’s media strategy. While the UDF and its allies made a gallant effort to counteract the hegemony of the state media, they were unable to stem the ideological impact that the electronic media had. However, the UDF had by now come of age and was ready to confront the anti-tricameral election campaign which I examine later. Before this we must pause to look at the campaign for participation in the elections waged by Indian conservatives, which is examined in the next chapter.