The Tricameral Parliament, a three-tiered assembly that presided over the last decade of Apartheid, was inaugurated to allow for parliamentary representation for Coloureds and Indians in one of three separate chambers, a supposed reform and improvement of Apartheid-era Whites-only representation. However, this attempt to apparently broaden political representation excluded Black Africans – far from being a movement towards a more just political order, the process represented Indians and Coloureds in an inadequate and racialised manner, and was meant to dislodge the two groups from an alliance with African nationalists and other anti-Apartheid forces that were demanding authentic democracy and equal rights for all. Analysts have seen the ‘reform’ process as a move from the politics of control to a politics of co-option.
The Tricameral Parliament was a reform imposed from above, and existed for about 11 years, in a manner many characterised as farcical. It was dissolved when a new interim constitution came into effect which abolished Apartheid legislation. Although it lasted only a decade or so, it had been planned for from the 1976/7 provincial congress of the National Party (NP), and once it became a reality in 1984, it unwittingly paved the way for the dissolution of Apartheid.
The UDF began initially in order to oppose the government's planned constitutional reforms, especially around the Tricameral Parliament. Details on opposition were discussed at the fist meeting of the NEC of the UDF in early September 1983. It was decided that the first stage of such the campaign needed to focus on public education. Although the education programme was never very well constructed, the UDF did manage to publicise the issue. The UDF also got drawn into campaigns being run and organised by affiliates on a regional level, and provided speakers and manpower.
In November/December 1983 the UDF began to focus on the planned elections for the Black Local Authorities (BLAs) and other local government in the townships. These structures were seen as a substitute for black representation in parliament, and were therefore an integral part of the government's constitutional reforms. The UDF called for a boycott of the elections, but the campaign was run mainly through affiliates and the UDF only played a coordinating role. At this time the UDF did not have the structures in place to play a very big role in campaigns, and their most important contribution was the production of media and speeches. The UDF interpreted low voter turnout as a victory.
The focus for the UDF still lay in the Tricameral Parliament. The government's first step in introducing the change was to hold a referendum on the 'reforms' for whites on 2 November. The UDF was not sure what they should call for- a boycott of the referendum or a 'no' vote. Parties to both the left and right of the National Party were calling for 'no' votes, but some UDF supporters felt that a boycott would be more effective and more in line with extra-parliamentary politics. They decided not to take a specific stand, and just rejected the white-only referendum, although many affiliates supported a 'no' vote. The UDF wanted to broaden the campaign to focus on calling for a 'people's referendum. This led to a People's Weekend just prior to the referendum, attended by approximately 30 000 people across the country. This was the first open public defiance action by the UDF since its launch, and was the first major event in the Transvaal, Natal and Eastern Cape.
A more difficult issue for the UDF was that of a referendum for coloureds and Indians. The UDF was not sure if it should call for such referendums and whether to support participation if they were held. It was decided to hold a special National Conference of delegates in December to discuss the issue. A vote was held, but the outcome was so close that the issue was referred to a commission and eventually back to the NEC. Very heated debates were held at all levels, and despite calls for unity the issue highlighted the divisions within the UDF and a lack of common tactics and strategy. A compromise was eventually reached in January, with the UDF calling for a non-racial referendum and leaving mobilisation to local affiliates. The issue was still sensitive and not finally solved when the government announced in February that they would not hold referendums for the coloureds and Indians.
As the government continued to move towards constitutional reform, the UDF saw the need for another campaign in order to pull people together again after the divisions caused by the referendum debate. A Million Signatures Campaign was decided on to prove opposition to the government's reforms and support for the UDF at the same time.
It was hoped that the UDF would become better known through open opposition to apartheid. The campaign was however not as successful as had been hoped. It ran from January 1984 until the middle of the year, but only managed to collect 1/3 of the targeted signatures. Rather than helping to cover up divisions in the UDF, these divisions affected the campaign negatively. It did however help build up the UDF and provided new ideas on how to overcome problems. The campaign focused more on the coloured and Indian areas as they were directly affected by the new parliament, but did also involve blacks as they were affected by the system. The campaign was the best attempt at nation-wide, non-racial opposition since 1961.
In the middle of the year, after the Million Signatures Campaign had drawn to an end. The UDF turned their attention to the upcoming parliamentary elections. These elections would prove very important, as no referendum had been held to see the amount of support for the reforms. The election for the House of Representatives (coloured) was scheduled for 22 August and for the House of Delegates (Indian) for 28 August. The UDF, its affiliates and other extra-parliamentary groups agreed that in this case the best reaction would be boycott of the elections. Planning began on 7 July, taking into account the lessons that had been learnt earlier during the year.
Mass meetings and rallies were held across the country from mid-July. The planning was well done, sometimes including other groups or trade unions, the speakers were carefully chosen and the UDF reached more potential voters than any of the political parties. Speakers came from different racial groups, various regions and religions. Civil rights were focused on, amid discussions on freedom and equality. UDF supporters also tried to disrupt meetings by the political parties participating in the elections. As the elections drew nearer, the government, who up until this point had been fairly lenient towards the UDF, started to arrest, detain and repress UDF and affiliate activists. On the days of the elections the police brutally attacked those demonstrating outside election station.
The campaign however tuned out quite a success for the UDF. Voter turnout was very low, with about 1 in 5 voting. Coloured and Indian students boycotted schools and tertiary institutions, but there were no worker stay aways. Although the success was largely due to the UDF, it must be remembered that it was not alone in calling for a boycott. It did however manage to reach some new people and to raise the spirit of resistance to apartheid. Voter turnout in areas where it was not active was higher, and many saw black political consciousness as being raised to the highest level it had ever been at.