The UDF was an umbrella organization that was founded to unify the hundreds of Anti-Apartheid movements occurring in the 1980s. Female leaders such as Albertina Sisulu and Sister Bernard Ncube, along with working class women, successfully fought apartheid through protests like the 1988 miner strike and 1989 meeting with President George W.H. Bush.


United Democratic Front, FEDTRAW, Alberta Sisulu, Koornhoff Bills, United Women Organization

Strong and Unnoticed: The Women of the UDF

Formed in 1983 as a conglomeration of political, civic, church, student and other organizations to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa, the United Democratic Front (UDF) brought rallies and mass protest groups to the forefront of South Africa’s political and social war. While the world sees most of the leaders of the UDF and the anti-apartheid movement as males, women had a large hand in not only the organization of the rallies, but also leading groups into what many would consider a war zone. These women walked hand in hand with danger and fear knowing what they were doing was best for their country. Many of them were imprisoned, or sent out of the country in exile. Women participated in UDF affiliate organizations, as leaders, and in protests and delegations such as the 1988 miner strike and the 1989 meeting with former American President George H.W. Bush.

In January of 1983 a small conference was held by three community-based organizations to oppose the South African Indian Conference and the apartheid government’s plan for a tricameral parliament for Indians, Coloureds, and Whites, excluding Black South Africans. The Anti-SAIC, as it would soon be called, would plant the seeds that would then grow into the UDF. At the end of the conference Dr. Allan Boesak announced, ‘We cannot accept a ‘new deal’ which makes apartheid work even better. We cannot accept a future for our people when we had no say in it. And we cannot accept a ‘solution’ which says yes to homelands, the Group Areas Act, to laws which make us believe that we are separate and unequal.’(South Africa). This quote from Dr. Boesak would later become the call to arms for the UDF. He called for a united front to be launched to form and organize mass campaigns against the newly formed tri-cameral parliament. The newly created parliament was created on the ideas of Pieter G. Koornhof. His idea was to give a house of parliament to the White, Coloured and Indian population, while leaving the Black majority without a vote. This tricameral parliament ensured that power stayed in the hands of the White minority, while allowing Coloured and Indians to vote, just without much power. Much of the issue the population had with the bill was that it had no guaranteed rights for Blacks. Even people outside the country, like New York Times writer Joseph Lelyveld could see through the smoke screen of bureaucratic language. In his article titled ‘South Africa Makes Tactical Retreat On Black Rights,’ he noted that ‘The term ‘right’ does not appear in the laws, but blacks could regard residence as reasonably secure if they could furnish proof, on demand, that they were born in the area or had worked continuously for on one employer for 10 years and if they had not been found to be ‘ideal or undesirable’ or ‘redundant’ under other provisions of the same law’ (Lelyveld). The section Lelyveld was discussing was the repeal of the Urban Areas Act and 35 other laws that had restricted movement of Black South Africans. These laws that Koornhof passed through would become known as the Koornhof Bills. These laws stated ‘that the continued residence of any black in an urban area would be entirely at the discretion of Mr. Koornhof's ministry,’ and that the bill has the ability to ‘prevent a black who does not now have such rights from gaining them in the future. That codifies a situation long in existence, for departmental regulations require any rural worker who takes a job in a city to be a migrant laborer, without his family, on a contract that must be renewed annually’ (Lelyveld). While Koornhof’s administration stated that they were repealing the Urban Areas act, and the subsequent laws that were tied to it, nothing changed for migrant workers and Black labourers. This roundabout style of government would cause some three million people to unite under the UDF banner and march in the name of freedom, because they had had enough of the apartheid government.

The UDF was a powerful organization that acted as an umbrella for many other organizations, including women’s groups, to fall under. Other organizations had female leaders. They did not discriminate upon race, sex or religion as long as their end goal was to end apartheid and give freedom to those who were oppressed under the White government. Many of the organizations that fell under the UDF umbrella were women’s organizations. Some of these groups that joined under the Co-Presidency of Albertina Sisulu were the Federation of Transvaal Women and the United Women Organization. Albertina Sisulu was the wife of Walter Sisulu, one of the most iconic figures of the Anti-Apartheid movement. However, since Mr. Sisulu was imprisoned on Robin Island for 26 years, Albertina made it her life goal to continue to fight against the apartheid government. Sisulu held distinct leadership positions in both organizations and brought many women into the UDF to follow her. Some of the first actions taken by women under the UDF was to rally against President Botha and the Koornhof Bills that were to be passed by parliament later that year. A poster was put out by the Federation of South African Women in 1984 to showcase how women were in the forefront of rallies and had a hands on approach with demonstrations. In the picture, you can see a dozen plus women with posters rallying in front of a housing development protesting. While some of the women are smiling in the poster, others are there with stern faces, looking ready to battle anyone who stands in their way (FEDSAW).

One of the most successful rallies held by women under the UDF umbrella was the mine workers strike of 1988. In early 1988 the apartheid government banned ‘17 black anti-apartheid groups and the country's largest trade union federation from any political activity and served 17 black leaders with individual banning orders’ (Goodspeed). This mass banning of groups hurt the mining labor force and caused an uproar among the workers. Peter Goodspeed from the Toronto Star chronicled the protest and painted a picture of who exactly was protesting:‘The women, most of them office workers and union members, accuse the mine owners of secretly backing the government. After presenting the petition, the women, some carrying babies on their backs, stood on the steps of the Chamber of Mines building and sang black freedom songs. Riot police at the scene ordered the crowd to disperse and took one woman into custody for questioning. As the women began to leave to take similar petitions to the British and American consulates, police turned on reporters and photographers at the scene and arrested nine people’ (Goodspeed). The women protesting were working class women, most of them with families to feed. Some of them even brought their children to the rally because they could not afford to have someone else care for their child while they fought for something they believed in. These women would not let anything stand in the way of their freedom, so they fought and sang their way to freedom.

Freedom, however, was not always an option for the people of South Africa, and in a lot of cases these protestors were imprisoned at one point in their lives. When we look at footage shot during the time period men and women were scattered throughout the marches and demonstrations, however what it does not show is that women were often leading these and in many times they were imprisoned for these actions. One iconic picture from this time period is of Sister Bernard Ncube being released from prison in 1987 in which the government tried to charge her, and several other women. The apartheid government attempted to charge Ncube and the others with sedition and subversion, however they did not have enough evidence to incarcerate her on such charges. The photograph depicts Ncube embracing a man outside of her detention center for the first time in several months (Miller). This picture shows the overwhelming desire and effort women put forth into the struggle. It was not just men who were showing up to rallies, fighting off policemen, and doing time in jail, it was the women of the UDF.

One of the largest steps forward within the UDF and future gender relations within South Africa was the UDF Women’s Conference held in 1987. This conference was held with two goals in mind. These were told in Agenda magazine by Pregs Govender: ‘1. By co-ordinating at a national level campaigns drawn out from the resolutions passed at conference and by co-ordinating political education. 2. By asserting women’s leadership and women’s issues in a more forceful way within the U.D.F to ensure that the idea that women’s struggle is an integral part of political struggle is fully realized’ (Govender). The women leaders saw the injustice that was happening to them not only in by the apartheid government but also the organization that they were supporting. Some of the issues happening within the UDF were not limited to: sexual harassment, limited leadership on the national level and inequality of ideals being shared (Govender). The conference was one of the first steps UDF women took to get rid of the patriarchal society that existed in South Africa at the time. As stated in the Women’s Conference list of grievances, one of the major issues that they had was that even though women were some of the most active members of the organization (Govender), they were not considered for leadership position or asked to do much of significance.

However with the list the Women’s Conference drafted, significant strides were made in the UDF hierarchy. When the UDF sent delegates to the United States and United Kingdom in June of 1989 to discuss what other countries could do to help end apartheid, the women that went were the ones that dictated the conversation. One major conversation that was held was between Co-President Sisulu and President George H.W. Bush. In the conference held after their meeting President Bush stated his allegiance with the UDF: ‘As I told Mrs. Sisulu in our meeting, the United States also believes fundamentally in human rights and human dignity. We believe strongly that apartheid is wrong and that it must end. We want to see the creation of a nonracial and democratic South Africa as a result of negotiations among legitimate representatives of all of South Africa's people. We support the beginning of a process leading to a peaceful transition to democracy’ (Bush). This change in ideals within the United States was a turning point for the UDF. Up until this point the U.S. had been supporting the apartheid government stating that the African National Congress, the leading Black political party in South Africa, was a communist organization. However, with the help and persuasion of Sisulu, she was able to gain not only the U.S as an ally but also ‘the British, Japanese, West Germans, and Portuguese, to develop mutually supporting policies and cooperative programs to resolve the political impasse created by apartheid and to assist in the advancement of black South Africans’ (Bush). Without the conversation held by the Sisulu and the other delegates, getting support from the United States and other Western powers would have been difficult. She was able to convey a message of nonviolence and compassion, yet was stern and resolute with her organization’s actions to show how serious apartheid was. They were fighting a real war and needed the assistance of other countries. Sisulu, and the rest of the UDF delegates, were able to receive the aid of powerful Western countries, which just shows the power of the women who led this organization.

Women had always had their hand in on what the UDF did from its origins. From the working class women who spent hours marching the streets, to the high profile leaders like Albertina Sisulu who led delegations to convince Western powers to ally with them, women were some of the strongest fighters for freedom and equality South Africa has seen. All of the progress they made is already astounding, but to add that they did all of this while living in a patriarchal society changes everything. They were able to break through gender barriers within the UDF and ones that were put up by the government. They let nothing stop them on their journey to freedom and this is why women were some of the most important people to fight for freedom within the UDF.

This article was written by Reid Arnold and forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project


Bush, G., (1989). ‘Statement on Meeting With South African Anti-Apartheid Activist Albertina Sisulu.’Available at www.presidency.uscb.edu, 30 June. [Accessed 30 October 2014].|FEDSAW, (1984). ‘Women Unite Against Botha.’ Photograph. Available at https://www.saha.org.za. [Accessed 30 October 2014].|Govender, P., (1987). ‘Launching UDF’s Women’s Conference.’ Agenda Feminist Movement. [online] JSTOR Database. P. 75-78. Available from: https://www.jstor.org. [Accessed 29 October 2014].|Miller, E., (1987). Sister Bernard Ncube on her release from prison. Photograph, available at www.saha.org.za. [Accessed 29 October 2014].|Godspeed, P., (1988). ‘Women Urge South Africa Mine Owners to Fight Apartheid’. The Toronto Globe. 8 March.|Lelyveld, J., (1981). ‘South Africa Makes Tactical Retreat on Black Rights’. The New York Times. 21 February. P. 1-2.        |Pickover, M., (1992). ‘The Delmas Treason Trial 1985-1989.’ Johannesburg: Historical Papers, The University of the Witwatersrand. Available at https://www.historicalpapers.wits.ac.za/  [Accessed 29 October 2014].  |South Africa History Online (2014) ‘Women of the UDF.’ [Online]. Available at www.saha.org.za. [Accessed 27 October 2014].

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