The United Democratic Front (UDF) was a non-racial alliance of about 400 national, regional and local organisations. It was launched in Cape Town in 1983, and based its ideology on the Freedom Charter. The UDF was supported by the African National Congress (ANC) in exile.

The End Conscription Campaign

The South African Defense Force (SADF) claimed to be 'the protector of peace-loving people'. However, it was an essential tool in the repressive apparatus of the apartheid regime, and consisted of both white and black soldiers. The SADF was used:

  • To enforce the National Party government's racist policies

  • To act against the banned liberation movements within South Africa, as well as in Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Angola, South West Africa (Namibia) and Mozambique

  • To destabilize the majority governments in the southern African region

  • Against fellow South Africans to quell civil war in the black townships

  • To repress anti-apartheid activities

Under the apartheid government, all white South African men were conscripted into military service in the SADF when they completed their school or tertiary education. This was referred to as "National Service by the apartheid regime. In the 1980s, white men were called up for two years of compulsory military service, followed by military camps. Harsh sentences were suffered by those men who objected.

In 1983, the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) was formed. It was an anti-apartheid organisation allied to the UDF. Conscientious objectors and their supporters joined the ECC to oppose the conscription of all white South African men into military service in the SADF.

White men who refused to do military service fled the country, faced imprisonment, went AWOL (Absent without Leave) or failed to turn up for their basic training. By 1985, the number of conscripts who failed to report for so-called National Service was increasing rapidly. By 1988, the ECC was undermining the apartheid state to such an extent that the Minister of Law and Order, Adriaan Vlok, banned the organisation.

In 1989, conscription was reduced from two years to one year. During the negotiations to end apartheid from 1990, conscription was less rigorously enforced, and in 1993 the end of conscription was announced.

Civic Organisations

Community or civic organisations were formed at a local level to oppose the control of the apartheid state, and to promote the interests of local communities. Civics were organised from the bottom up, and although the ANC was banned, most civics identified with the ANC.

A national, broad structure for civics only emerged in 1992, which was called the South African National Civics Organisation (SANCO).

Civics tackled 'bread and butter issues' such as rent, municipal services, public transport and poor recreational and child-care facilities. Civics sought to improve the quality of life of township residents, and played a major role in the resistance of the 1980s. There were frequent, violent confrontations with the security forces.

The government had established Community Councils served by black councillors who were responsible for township administration. These Community Councils were financed by rent and service charges from local residents. Councillors were regarded as collaborators or 'sell-outs', and councils were rejected by communities as they imposed apartheid structures. Councillors and black police officers were forced to flee the townships, forced to resign, or faced violent deaths.

Civic organisations in street and area committees attempted to form alternative institutions of administration and justice, in an attempt to establish 'people's power' against white minority rule.

Protest against poor services took the form of boycotts, in which residents refused to pay rent or service fees to the municipality. In 1985, Oliver Tambo, leader of the ANC in exile, said:

'In this coming period we shall need to pursue with ever more vigour the destruction of the organs of government in order to render the country ungovernable'.

By 1987, the amount owing to the government due to boycotts was in the region of R177 million.
In some areas, street committees were effective and democratically run. In the absence of justice, 'People's Courts' were established. They were made up of ordinary citizens in an attempt to empower township residents to take control of their lives. These courts were very controversial, as residents could be unfairly punished by radical young 'comrades'.

State orchestrated violence and human rights abuse escalated in the 1980s. The fear of government spies in civic ranks was a formidable threat to the democratic movement. The National Security Management System ordered the elimination of key activists through police hit-squads and agents of the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB).

Police informants (both black and white), murder squads and even government sponsored biological warfare led to widespread torture, the disappearance of activists, deaths in police detention, and murder.

Necklacing refers to the practice of summary execution carried out by forcing a rubber tire, filled with gasoline, around a victim's chest and arms, and setting it on fire.

Suspected collaborators or suspected police informers were 'necklaced' and in some cases burnt to death. 'Necklacing' is a difficult legacy to deal with in the struggle for justice, freedom and democracy.

One of the most notorious public statements on the use of 'necklacing' was made by Winnie Mandela at a rally in 1986:

'We have no guns - we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol. Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.'

Zwelake Sisulu, prominent UDF leader, and son of the imprisoned ANC leader, Walter Sisulu, criticised this 'justice' in the name of 'people's power' and stated that some 'comrades' had become 'ungovernable to their own organisation.'

Trade Unions

A Trade Union or Labour Union is an organisation of workers. Trade union leadership bargains with the employer on behalf of its members to improve employment conditions. However, many trade unions also engage in political activities to have laws changed to benefit the workers.

The South African trade union movement grew in size and sophistication over a relatively short period of time. Employment practices and wider political trends were seen as indivisible.

The modern trade union movement in South Africa was formed in the 1970's when trade unions for black workers were illegal. A turning point in trade union history came about with the Durban strikes in 1973. These strikes soon extended to other parts of the country, and in 1973 and 1974 there was a countrywide increase in labour opposition.  Police used tear gas and violence against the strikers.

Even though unions remained illegal and unofficial, black workers began to form trade unions. After the 1976 Soweto Uprising, trade unions and their workers began to play a major role in the anti-apartheid struggle. Members of trade unions grew in numbers. They campaigned for the rights of black workers and played a political role as they put pressure on the government to make changes to its apartheid policies. Links between work issues and broader community grievances in the apartheid state became inseparable.

Continuing strikes became a headache for the apartheid government, and they set up a commission, headed by Professor Nic Wiehahn, to study labour issues. The commission report of 1979 suggested amendments to the Labour Relations Act and the establishment of an Industrial Court.

The apartheid government changed the laws accordingly. This meant that the concept of unfair labour practices was recognised, and black unions were granted some freedom to organise legally for the first time in decades.  Although the legalisation of black trade unions gave workers the legal right to strike, it also gave the government a degree of control over them, as trade unions had to be registered and hand in their membership records to the government. By law, unions were not allowed to support political parties, but some trade unions did not comply.

Later in 1979, the first federation of trade unions called the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) was formed. FOSATU aimed to be a national, non-racial umbrella organisation to co-ordinate Black trade unions. It was politically non-aligned, and concentrated on workplace issues.

In 1980, another trade union federation was formed called the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA). It was influenced strongly by the ideas of Black Consciousness and wanted to work to ensure black leadership of unions. CUSA objected to the number of Whites in leadership positions in FOSATU, and wanted to maintain Black working class leadership.

The establishment of the trade-union federations led to greater unity amongst the workers. The tremendous size of the federations gave them increased power. Outside of the federations, there were a number of independent anti-apartheid unions. During the 1980s, there was a push for unity.

In 1985, a new federation called the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was formed, which followed the non-racial policies of the (banned) ANC.

In 1986, CUSA and other unions formed the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU).

Not all trade unions joined the federations.

A strike was a powerful weapon used by workers. In 1981, 342 strikes took place in South Africa. In 1986, the number of strikes had risen to 780. As the mass movement against apartheid grew, worker action focused on the overthrow of the apartheid system.

During a stay-away students and workers did not go to work or to school
You can read more about the stay-away of 1984 on: www.anc.org.za

At times, strikes were part of national stay-aways. The stay-away of 1984 in the Transvaal was the first major action in the 1980s which brought together students, civics and trade unions.

During the 1980s, trade unions had the membership of only ten per cent of the country's workforce. Agricultural and domestic workers did not have a trade union, and remained vulnerable. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1980s, trade unions were one of the most effective vehicles of resistance against the apartheid state.

Between August 1984 and December 1986, four times more political work stoppages took place than in the entire preceding three and a half decades. Resistance during the 1980s, which included school boycotts, strikes and guerrilla action of MK, made South Africa increasingly ungovernable and was one of the forces that led to the collapse of the apartheid government.

Cosas and Azaso

In the aftermath of the 1976 Uprising, a national high school education student organisation called the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) was formed in 1979.

COSAS was ideologically aligned to the banned ANC. COSAS' aim was to co-ordinate student activities in different regions, to unite and to advance the demands of school students. COSAS banners could be seen at nearly every mass demonstration in the 1980s.

Note: Before 1994, school learners as well as university students were referred to as 'students'.

The Azanian Student Organisation (AZASO) was also established in 1979 by students from five Black universities and one college of education. AZASO adopted ANC policies and the Freedom Charter. AZASO advocated a non-racial policy and worked with White anti-apartheid university student structures, like NUSAS.

AZASO and COSAS did not separate the education struggle from the broader socio-political struggle. AZASO and COSAS were therefore part of the UDF.

From 1982 to 1984, AZASO and COSAS initiated a nation-wide campaign to collect demands for an Education Charter. The White anti-apartheid student organisation, NUSAS, also worked on the Education Charter. The Education Charter took its inspiration from the clause in the Freedom Charter which stated that "The doors of learning and culture shall be opened."

In many areas, the youth became the leading organisers of protests and mass mobilisation such as school boycotts, stay-aways, consumer boycotts, and self defence structures against the apartheid security forces.

School boycotts became a central strategy for youth organisations. As a result, by the end of 1984 there were about 220 000 children absent from school in various parts of the country. Many young people sacrificed education and employment opportunities in order to participate in the struggle against apartheid. At one point they coined the slogan "liberation first, education later."

COSAS and AZASO became linked to a broader movement called the National Education Crisis Committee (NECC) which was formed in 1986. The NECC united students, parents and teacher structures in an effort to build democracy in schools and eliminate the Bantu Education curriculum. The NECC adopted the slogan 'Education for liberation.'

Parents became increasingly concerned with intimidating tactics used by youth organisations. The Soweto Parent's Crisis Committee was formed in 1986 and tried to solve the problem by calling on students to return to their classrooms and resume their studies. The UDF leadership, and in particular Popo Molefe, was against the continuation of the school boycott. COSAS opposed the move as collaboration with the government.

The commitment of the youth to make the country ungovernable caused serious tension between parents and youths. The youth became increasingly radical and militant, sometimes killing those who were suspected spies. The civil disorder and the erosion of the authority of the state is a legacy that the new democratic government has inherited.

In 1986, AZASO changed its name to the South African National Students Congress (SANSCO). In 1991, SANSCO and NUSAS decided to merge to form the South African Student Congress (SASCO).

The consequences of the rejection of conventional schooling in favour of the ideological slogans and political action of People's Education still haunt our society today. Some analysts have criticised People's Education for its 'anti-intellectualism' and 'conceptual sloppiness'. In the 1980s, those who criticised People's Education were regarded as a 'sell-outs'.

South African Council of Churches (SACC)

The apartheid government claimed to be Christian, and justified racism by the misuse of biblical texts. Remember, during the 1980s, the world was embroiled in the Cold War.  The National Party defended their repressive actions by claiming to be defending South Africa against Communism, and labelled everyone who disagreed with them as 'communists.'

The three white Dutch Reformed churches continued to support government policy, while the Baptists, Pentecostals and the Charismatic groups, as well as the black Zionist Christian Churches maintained "non-political" stances, refusing to become involved in the issue of social justice.

On the other hand, the South African Council of Churches (SACC), an interdenominational forum of churches, was prominent in fighting for social justice, and challenged the apartheid laws during the years of struggle in South Africa. Its leaders have included Desmond Tutu, Beyers Naudé and Frank Chikane.

In the SACC, the ideas of Liberation Theology, which originated in Latin America in the 1960s, became popular in the 1980s. The Christian message was interpreted as a means of liberating the poor, using direct political action against unjust laws that were imposed through the structural violence of the police and the army. They also adopted many of the ideas and strategies of Christian civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, an activist in the USA in the 1960s.  

In 1986, Desmond Tutu made this interesting observation when comparing the Civil Rights Movement in the USA with the South African struggle for freedom in the 1980s:

"The law was on the side of those who were campaigning in the Civil Rights Movement. What Martin Luther King and others were doing was to claim rights that were theirs under the constitution. In South Africa, the constitution and the law are against us, so we have to overturn and dismantle that whole structure."

In 1985, SACC theologians issued the Kairos (Moment of Truth) Document. The Kairos document called for the church to stand up for the poor and the oppressed, and stand against the injustices of apartheid. The document said Christians should serve the needs of the struggle for liberation, and mobilise its members to work and plan for a change in government. It also supported civil disobedience.

Speaking at a World Council of Churches session in Harare in December 1985, Bishop Tutu tackled the impatience of the youth with the lack of social change the church was unable to provide: 

"We who want a peaceful solution are rapidly becoming an irrelevancy. We talk with words and they (the government) reply with bullets. This is why I have said, if I was young, I would have rejected Bishop Tutu long ago."

But at no time did he suggest the Church should take up the call to arms.

The SACC headquarters at Khotso House in Johannesburg was destroyed by a bomb in 1988. The apartheid regime believed the ANC had secret meetings there. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission later found that State President P.W. Botha had personally ordered the bombing.

Former Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok and several senior policemen applied for and were granted amnesty for the bombing. The bombing was directed by the infamous Eugene de Kock, then commander at Vlakplaas, a secret facility of the security branch of the South African Police force. In 1996, when it became clear that the apartheid regime was responsible for the bombing, the then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki issued a press statement saying:

"I am proud of the stand the Church took during those difficult times by (1) taking sides with the victims of the immoral apartheid system, (2) identifying with their struggle against apartheid, and (3) acting in solidarity with the people."

Other prominent church leaders and political activists during the 1980s were Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, a Catholic priest and Allan Boesak, a minister in the 'coloured' wing of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Mass Democratic Movement

Another State of Emergency was declared by the apartheid government in 1988. The emergency restrictions effectively banned the UDF. The Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) was then established to replace the UDF.

The MDM was a loose coalition of anti-apartheid organisations which adhered to the ANC's Freedom Charter. The MDM had no permanent constitution, no official membership rolls, no national or regional governing body, and no office bearers.

In 1989, the MDM organized a campaign of civil disobedience to defy the State of Emergency. Protesters entered "whites-only" hospitals and beaches. People of all races marched peacefully in several cities to protest against police brutality and repressive laws. When the UDF was unbanned in February 1990, most MDM leaders and many members rejoined their former organizations.

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