The early 1980s

There was little change in the situation from the late 1970s to the early 1980s in South Africa. After the crisis of the early and mid-70s, the government's 'total onslaught' had managed to suppress much unrest and had it under some measure of control. With leaders from the 1976 uprising either imprisoned or exiled, the liberation struggle did not move forward much. It was in this climate that anti-apartheid organizations in the country realized that they needed flexible structures and leadership to survive in the future, as well as have a mass movement focus. This would facilitate the continuation of resistance even when the government imprisoned major leaders. The obvious importance of unity was also acted on.

At the same time the government tried to rebuild its support base, especially in the face of opposition from the right. Although the 1976 Uprising led to some whites calling for reform and an eventual end to apartheid, others believed the government needed to deal with uprisings more strictly and to protect white power even more. This led to bigger divisions within the National Party and within the Afrikaner community.

Cosmetic changes by the South African government

After the Soweto Uprising of 1976, the South African government led by P.W. Botha, introduced changes which it claimed were reforms. These, it was hoped (despite the following contradictions), would reduce international criticism of apartheid, satisfy white South Africans, form relations with other black countries in Africa and reduce internal black resistance.

Botha also realized the strength of united black resistance. The National Party (NP) government had initially used a 'divide and rule' approach by dividing the population into ethnic groups and by treating each group differently. A hierarchy of privilege was propagated according to skin colour, with whites, Indians, Coloureds and blacks in descending ranking. Further, black South Africans were divided even more according to language. This division was however failing, and the resistance was becoming more and more united. The government therefore tried to find new ways of dividing the population. Its strategy was to admit a small and carefully chosen and controlled number of black people into the middle class. The thinking was that, by creating a richer, black middle class, who would support apartheid and the government because they now needed apartheid to keep their elevated positions, black resistance would be reduced.The government also tried to make the gap between Indian and Coloured and African more defined. This was done through the new constitution that the NP government introduced in 1983. The Constitution created a new parliamentary system (called the Tricameral Parliament), which created different houses, or sections, of the government. Under the new constitution, a State President (no longer a Prime Minister, but holding the power of the old President and Prime Minister) led South Africa. The NP also introduced some other reforms to apartheid in the early 1980s. Specific apartheid laws were relaxed or removed, such as laws regarding separate amenities (link to Gr 12 Segregation and Apartheid, Unit 2, 3.6) and even some of them regarding influx control and job reservation. Many people however saw these reforms as merely cosmetic, as although they changed the face of apartheid from the outside, the system did not really change at all, and the situation for the normal man on the street got worse rather than better. The 1980s were also the most violent years of apartheid, as the government tried to hold onto its power and repress the resistance of the black people by any means they could.

Resistance and the United Democratic Front (UDF)

One of the reasons why the 1980s became so violent and moved South Africa towards change, was because the opposition to apartheid became united and so active during this period. There was mass action from the people, and although they were all part of different civil or community groups, they acted together for the same aim. A very important organization during the 1980s was the United Democratic Front (UDF). The UDF was not so much one organization by itself, but rather a grouping of many different organizations all acting together. The UDF also had close links with the ANC, and many members of the UDF were also either members of the ANC, active in other community groups or they joined the ANC later. The UDF consisted of hundreds of women, student, church, trade union, cultural, sporting and other groups.

Steps towards forming the UDF began in the late 1970s, and moved forward when Allan Boesak called for a 'united front' of 'churches, civic associations, trade unions, student organizations, and sports bodies' to fight oppression. A committee was formed to look into the possibility of such a front, and it was decided to join with organizations, on a regional structure, as long as they were non-racist. In May 1983 the Natal UDF was launched, followed by the Transvaal and the Western Cape. An 'Interim National Committee' was formed with members from each region, and a planning meeting was held that was also attended by Albertina Sisulu and Steve Tshwete. The committee decided to launch the UDF on 20 August 1983, just as the government were scheduled to introduce the Tricameral legislation. They decided on a logo and slogan - 'UDF Unites, Apartheid Divides' and decided on the principles of the UDF.

Delegates of 565 organizations attended the launch, and the immediate reason stated for the formation of the UDF was to fight the introduction of the Tricameral Parliament. However, the formation was actually the result of changes that had been taking place on a social, economic and political level since the Soweto Uprising. A new, more militant culture had emerged, that led to the formation of many civic, youth, student, worker, women and other organizations. There was also increased support for ideas embodied in the Freedom Charter and a strong move towards mass organization.

The UDF were quite successful in their initial campaign against the Tricameral parliament, and voter turn-out at the elections was very low. The UDF was however still experiencing organizational problems, and it also had competition from some other groups and from affiliates which thought it had too much power.

During the 1980s however, the UDF came to play a very important role in pushing forward the mass action, which was normally spontaneous, that broke out in townships and homelands across the country. Although the UDF did not organize and run all the uprisings, it gave them support, and through its actions the unrest spread across the country.

The actions of the 1980s were in many ways just the outcome of so many years of oppression and dissatisfaction. The ANC was also able to infiltrate South Africa more easily and became better organized inside the country during the 1980s. It called for the masses to make South Africa 'ungovernable' so that the NP would be forced to end apartheid. The UDF took up this call, together with many affiliates and the masses.

The government reacts

The government reacted to the increased unrest and organization in the same way as it always had - through banning people and organizations, through violence and suppression and eventually through a state of emergency. A state of emergency gives the police and state special powers over the people, and people can be arrested without reason, held for long periods of time without trial. During a state of emergency, the state affords itself special powers and bypasses normal laws that protect the human and civil rights.

The government initially introduced a state of emergency in only some areas of the country in 1985, but soon this was extended to the whole country and renewed on an annual basis until 1990. This resulted in thousands of people being arrested during this period of time, many being tortured in detention and hundreds of people being killed either in detention, on the streets by police or through 'black-on-black' violence. This black on black violence was the result of some black people working together with the police as spies, and these traitors were often killed. The police, who even provided weapons, often supported such violence. Click here to read how the government censored newspapers.

The end of the 1980s

By the late 1980s there was widespread discontent with the way the country was being run, even within the NP. P.W. Botha had changed the system of administration, meaning that the NP had less authority, authority of homeland leaders had increased considerably, there was little control over violence and there was much corruption. The NP had also lost a lot of support to the more right Conservative Party, meaning they could more easily bring in reform.

Click here to see a list of political deaths in police custody (non-security) 1984 - 1989

PW Botha had a stroke in January 1989, and decided to separate the position of President from that of NP leader. He retained the State Presidency, and F.W. de Klerk won the NP elections. In September de Klerk also became President, representing the part of the NP that wanted controlled reform and greater power for the executive, despite being conservative. The 1989 election lost the NP 37 seats, some to the Democratic Party, but even more to the Conservative Party - now the largest white opposition group. As the far right demonstrated its potential to disrupt political change, de Klerk felt sure more then 2/3 of the white electorate were in favour of reform.

For more on F.W. de Klerk, go to and

De Klerk wanted to make sure that the NP was part of the negotiation process of a new South Africa and that it had some say in the future position of whites. He therefore acted quickly after being voted into power. Botha had already identified Mandela as good person with whom to negotiate, and talks had begun in 1985 between Mandela and Kobie Coetsee. Botha met Mandela for the first time on 5 July 1989. After coming to power De Klerk met with Mandela, who spoke of the desirability of negotiated change.

The next step was to release Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and to unban organizations. This was a sign that the NP now accepted that they needed to negotiate with these movements, and could not rely on building up allies outside of the freedom movements.



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