United Democratic Front (South Africa)

Last updated

UDF-South Africa.png

The United Democratic Front (UDF) was a major anti-apartheid organisation of the 1980s. The non-racial coalition of about 400 civic, church, students', workers' and other organisations was formed in 1983, initially to fight the new Tricameral Parliament. The UDF's goal was to establish a "non-racial, united South Africa in which segregation is abolished and in which society is freed from institutional and systematic racism." [1] Its slogan was "UDF Unites, Apartheid Divides."

Apartheid system of racial segregation enforced through legislation in South Africa

Apartheid was a system of institutionalised racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s. Apartheid was characterised by an authoritarian political culture based on baasskap, which encouraged state repression of Black African, Coloured, and Asian South Africans for the benefit of the nation's minority white population. The economic legacy and social effects of apartheid continue to the present day.

A trade union, also called a labour union or labor union (US), is an association of workers in a particular trade, industry, or company created for the purpose of securing improvement in pay, benefits, working conditions or social and political status through collective bargaining and working conditions through the increased bargaining power wielded by creation of a monopoly of the workers. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with employers. The most common purpose of these associations or unions is "maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment". This may include the negotiation of wages, work rules, complaint procedures, rules governing hiring, firing and promotion of workers, benefits, workplace safety and policies.

The Tricameral Parliament was the name given to the South African parliament and its structure from 1984 to 1994, established by the South African Constitution of 1983. While still entrenching the political power of the White section of the South African population, it did give a limited political voice to the country's Coloured and Indian population groups. The majority Black population group was still however excluded.



Involvement in trade unions, beginning in Durban in 1973, helped create a strong, democratic political culture for black people in South Africa. [2] Mass urban protest could also be traced to the student upsurge in Soweto in 1976. [3]

Durban Place in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Durban is the third most populous city in South Africa—after Johannesburg and Cape Town—and the largest city in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. Located on the east coast of South Africa, Durban is famous for being the busiest port in the country. It is also seen as one of the major centres of tourism because of the city's warm subtropical climate and extensive beaches. Durban forms part of the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, which includes neighboring towns and has a population of about 3.44 million, making the combined municipality one of the biggest cities on the Indian Ocean coast of the African continent. It is also the second most important manufacturing hub in South Africa after Johannesburg. In 2015, Durban was recognised as one of the New7Wonders Cities.

Soweto Place in Gauteng, South Africa

Soweto is a township of the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality in Gauteng, South Africa, bordering the city's mining belt in the south. Its name is an English syllabic abbreviation for South Western Townships. Formerly a separate municipality, it is now incorporated in the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality, Suburbs of Johannesburg.

1982 brought the effects of a world economic crisis to South Africa, and the price of gold fell in 1985. [3] The result of these things and other economic problems caused mass unemployment, especially for young black South Africans. [3]

A financial crisis is any of a broad variety of situations in which some financial assets suddenly lose a large part of their nominal value. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many financial crises were associated with banking panics, and many recessions coincided with these panics. Other situations that are often called financial crises include stock market crashes and the bursting of other financial bubbles, currency crises, and sovereign defaults. Financial crises directly result in a loss of paper wealth but do not necessarily result in significant changes in the real economy.

The apartheid state wrote a new constitution in 1983 "in an attempt to allay criticism against apartheid and to set a new course." [4] The new form of government created a Tricameral Parliament which allowed Coloured (mixed-race) and Asian South Africans "nominal representation." [5] Black people were still not allowed to participate in the government. [4] [5]

Asian South Africans people of Asian descent in South Africa

Asian South Africans are South Africans of Asian descent. The majority of Asian South Africans are of Indian origin, most of whom are descended from indentured workers transported to work in the nineteenth century on the sugar plantations of the eastern coastal area, then known as Natal. They are largely English speaking, although many also retain the languages of their ancestors. There is also a significant group of Chinese South Africans, of whom the great majority are recent immigrants of the last two decades.

During a demonstration in Langa in 1984, police shot the participants which led to further insurrection. [6] This led to a "black youth uprising" by 1985 in South Africa. [6]

Langa, Cape Town Place in Western Cape, South Africa

Langa is a township and suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. It was established in 1927 in terms of the 1923 Urban Areas Act. Similar to Nyanga, Langa is one of the many areas in South Africa that were designated for Black Africans before the apartheid era. It is the oldest of such suburbs in Cape Town and was the location of much resistance to apartheid. Langa is also where several people were killed on 21 March 1960 same day as the Sharpeville massacre, during the anti-pass campaign. On 21 March 2010, now 50 years later, a monument was unveiled by the government in remembrance of the people who lost their lives.



The plans for a new political organisation were introduced by Rev. Allan Boesak at a conference of the Transvaal Anti-South African Indian Council Committee (TASC) on 23 January 1983. [7] The part of his speech calling for a "united front" of "churches, civic associations, trade unions, student organizations, and sports bodies" was unplanned, but well received. [8] He also called for black people to have full participation in the government. [9]

Allan Boesak South African anti-apartheid activist

Allan Aubrey Boesak is a South African Dutch Reformed Church cleric and politician and anti-apartheid activist. He was sentenced to prison for fraud in 1999 but was subsequently granted an official pardon and reinstated as a cleric in late 2004.

The UDF then formed regional committees, which established relationships with local organizations. The Natal UDF was launched first, in May, and then the Transvaal region (in June) and the Cape Province (July). [10] Representatives of the regions formed the Interim National Committee, which also included outside activists.

At the end of July, the committee held a two-day meeting where they discussed a national launch date. Although most delegates wanted time to organise the regions before the national launch, they decided the best date was 20 August, the day the government planned to introduce the Tricameral Constitution. UDF sent out over 400,000 letters, flyers and brochures to advertise the launch of the group. [8] The UDF's symbols logo and slogan were also selected at the meeting. Both the logo and slogan portray the widespread support the UDF hoped to achieve by incorporating a wide range of South Africans of all races. Some member organisations adapted the "UDF Unites, Apartheid Divides" slogan; for example, the Soweto Civic Association used "Soweto Civic Association Unites Piet Koornhof Divides".

On 20 August 1983 the UDF was launched in the Rocklands community hall, Mitchell's Plain, near Cape Town. After a conference of delegates from 575 organisations, a public rally was held, attended by about 10,000 people. [8] Frank Chikane, the first major speaker, called the day "a turning point in the struggle for freedom."

Activities of UDF

The UDF and its affiliates promoted rent boycotts, school protests, worker stay-away and a boycott of the tricameral system. These activities took place in earnest after September 1984. [3]

In 1989, UDF sent delegates to the United States and the United Kingdom to discuss what foreign countries could do to help end apartheid. [11] Women in the delegation "were the ones that dictated the conversation," with Albertina Sisulu conveying a strong message of nonviolence and compassion. [11]

Banning and imprisonment

In 1986, President Pieter Botha prohibited the UDF from receiving foreign funds. [5] The UDF was under a government ban as of February 1987 restricting its actions. [12] In May 1987, a Natal provincial Supreme Court justice, John Didcott, ruled that the ban on the UDF's ability to receive foreign funding should be lifted. [13] Foreign contributions made up more than half of the group's budget. [13]

By late 1987, the UDF had a majority of its activists imprisoned. [14]

Treason Trials

On February 19, 1985, several UDF members, including Albertina Sisulu, Frank Chikane and Cassim Saloojee were arrested on high treason warrants. [15] The UDF was accused of being a "shadow organization for the African National Congress." [15] In November 1988, eight of those accused of treason were acquitted of all charges, while four activists were found guilty of terrorism. [16] The judge also ruled that the UDF was a "'revolutionary organization.' that incited violence in black townships in 1984 in a bid to render South Africa ungovernable." [16] The convictions were overturned by the Appeal Court in Bloemfontein in 1989, releasing five activists, including Popo Molefe. [12]


When the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and other organizations were unbanned in February 1990, the UDF faced a change and "it became clear that the need for the UDF no longer existed." [17] In March 1991, the decision to disband was made and the UDF held its last meeting on August 14, 1991 in Johannesburg. [17]

Organisational structure

The UDF was an umbrella organisation that had a "federal structure" and a decentralized method of employing tactics. [1] By 1986, there were 700 different organizations working under the umbrella which were often youth movements, community organizations, unions, professional societies and churches. [1] Eventually there would be nearly "1,000 affiliated groups." [18] UDF embraced a philosophy of "African nationalism, socialism and Christianity." [19] The common goal of ending apartheid and systematic racism allowed different types of groups to work together. [1] Any type of organization, regardless of race, sex or religion was welcome as long as they promoted an end to apartheid. [11] UDF helped many of the smaller organizations have access to a source of funding. [20]

The leadership structure included a National Executive Committee (NEC) at the top level which had three presidents, secretaries, a treasurer and representatives of the various regions. [18] Despite the NEC leadership, much of the "momentum for action came from the bottom levels of the organisation and from its youngest members." [3] Because members of UDF faced frequent arrests due to their activities, the leaders were "cautious and secretive." [21]

UDF Women's Congress

Feminists involved in the UDF felt that the organization was not seriously promoting issues relating to women and that women "had a second-class status within the organization." [22] The Women's Congress was formed on April 23, 1987 and included women's organizations affiliated with the UDF. [23] Organizations, such as the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW), the Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW), Port Elizabeth Women's Organisation, Port Alfred Women's Organisation and the Gompo Women's Congress sent delegates to that first meeting. [22] During the first meeting, the delegates created a list of issues and problems facing women involved in the UDF which included an absence of women in leadership roles and "UDF's failure to address issues of gender discrimination, and sexual harassment within the organization." [24] Delegates elected Albertina Sisulu to the national council for the UDF Women's Congress. [25]

In 1988, women were heavily involved in the mine worker's strike. [11] Mostly working-class women protested the mining management's support of the government and at the rally, presented a petition. [11] Some women attended "carrying babies on their backs." [11]

Critics of the UDF Women's Congress believed that focusing on women's issues "had the potential to weaken the overall liberation struggle." [26] Others disagreed, stating that "our struggle from freedom can only be won if men and women fight side by side." [26]

Relationship with the ANC

Early in its life, the UDF adopted the Freedom Charter, a statement of the aims for a free South Africa and basis for a democratic constitution. At first, the African National Congress (ANC) did not welcome UDF's involvement. [18]

Throughout its existence, the UDF demanded the release of imprisoned ANC leaders, as well as other political prisoners. In 1985, the UDF announced at a rally of 2,500 people, their campaign to see the release of Nelson Mandela. [27]

However, the UDF was never formally attached to the ANC, and did not participate in the armed struggle. The UDF did not want to be associated with violent tactics or acts of sabotage against the government. [5] In addition, the ANC over time, "showed an increasing intolerance for the values upheld by the UDF." [28]

Relationship with the Black Consciousness Movement

The Black Consciousness Movement disagreed with the UDF on the issue of whether whites should be welcomed into the struggle against apartheid. [29] The Black Consciousness movement was based on the principle that the liberation struggle should be led by black people, whereas the UDF welcomed anyone who shared their goals and was willing to commit to them in struggle. [27]

Relationship with the Progressive Federal Party (PFP)

The Progressive Federal Party had vigorously opposed the introduction of the tricameral system (in the referendum), but once introduced continued as the official opposition in the "White" Assembly. "Let us voice strong opposition and offer vigorous resistance both within and without the system that excludes Blacks and continues to imprison Nelson Mandela" argued Helen Suzman,speaking at the Cape Town Conference of the PFP National Youth in 1984. At the same conference, a resolution was passed endorsing and supporting the recent establishment of the United Democratic Front and offer ' back office assistance". This support sponsored by Gordon Waddell and Harry Oppenheimer through the Western Province Regional PFP Youth Committee led by Stephen Drus (Stephen Darori) included frequently picking up the tabs for busing and other transport, publicity, loud speaker systems and legal expenses when pro bono wasn't an option.

Mass Democratic Movement (MDM)

In 1989, the UDF and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) began cooperating more closely in a loose alliance called the Mass Democratic Movement, following restrictions on the UDF and COSATU by the apartheid government. The apartheid government described the MDM as a UDF/Cosatu/SACP alliance, although this was disputed by the MDM at the time. [30] [31] [32] The loose nature of the MDM made it difficult for the apartheid government to ban, [33] and the MDM has been described as having been "the UDF in another guise". [34]

Notable members

Related Research Articles

African National Congress political party in South Africa

The African National Congress (ANC) is the Republic of South Africa's governing political party. It has been the ruling party of post-apartheid South Africa on the national level, beginning with the election of Nelson Mandela in the 1994 election. Today, the ANC remains the dominant political party in South Africa, winning every election since 1994. Cyril Ramaphosa, the incumbent President of South Africa, has served as leader of the ANC since 18 December 2017.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela South African activist and politician

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, also known as Winnie Mandela, was a South African anti-apartheid activist and politician, and the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela. She served as a Member of Parliament from 1994 to 2003, and from 2009 until her death, and was a deputy minister of arts and culture from 1994 to 1996. A member of the African National Congress (ANC) political party, she served on the ANC's National Executive Committee and headed its Women's League. Madikizela-Mandela was known to her supporters as the "Mother of the Nation".

South African Communist Party political party in South Africa

The South African Communist Party (SACP) is a communist party in South Africa. It was founded in 1921, was declared illegal in 1950 by the governing National Party, and participated in the struggle to end the apartheid system. It is a partner of the Tripartite Alliance with the African National Congress and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and through this it influences the South African government.

Walter Sisulu South African anti-apartheid activist and member of the African National Congress

Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu was a South African anti-apartheid activist and member of the African National Congress (ANC), serving at times as Secretary-General and Deputy President of the organization. He was jailed at Robben Island, where he served more than 25 years' imprisonment.

Albertina Sisulu South African anti–apartheid activist

Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu was a South African anti-apartheid activist, and the wife of fellow activist Walter Sisulu (1912–2003). She was affectionately known as Ma Sisulu throughout her lifetime by the South African public. In 2004 she was voted 57th in the SABC3's Great South Africans. She died on 2 June 2011 in her home in Linden, Johannesburg, South Africa, aged 92.

Oliver Tambo South African anti-apartheid activist and politician

Oliver Reginald Kaizana (OR) Tambo was a South African anti-apartheid politician and revolutionary who served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1967 to 1991.

Defiance Campaign

The Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws was presented by the African National Congress (ANC) at a conference held in Bloemfontein, South Africa in December 1951. The Campaign had roots in events leading up the conference. The demonstrations, taking place in 1952 were the first "large-scale, multi-racial political mobilization against apartheid laws under a common leadership."

Ahmed Kathrada South African politician

Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada, sometimes known by the nickname "Kathy", was a South African politician, political prisoner and anti-apartheid activist.

The Treason Trial was a trial in Johannesburg in which 156 people, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested in a raid and accused of treason in South Africa in 1956.

Internal resistance to apartheid

Internal resistance to apartheid in South Africa originated from several independent sectors of South African society and alternatively took the form of social movements, passive resistance, or guerrilla warfare. Mass action against the ruling National Party government, coupled with South Africa's growing international isolation and economic sanctions, were instrumental factors in ending racial segregation and discrimination. Both black and white South African activists such as Steve Biko, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Harry Schwarz, and Joe Slovo were involved with various anti-apartheid causes. By the 1980s, there was continuous interplay between violent and non-violent action, and this interplay was a notable feature of resistance against apartheid from 1983 until South Africa's first multiracial elections under a universal franchise in 1994.

The African National Congress (ANC) is the current governing

Martin Legassick (1940–2016) was a South African historian and Marxist activist. He died on 1 March 2016 after a battle with cancer. He was one of the central figures in the "revisionist" school of South African historiography that, drawing on Marxism, revolutionised the study of the social formation by highlighting the importance of political economy, class contradictions and imperialism. He was also a key figure in the independent left in South Africa from the 1970s, and a critic, from the left, of many of the analytical and strategic positions taken by the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, as well as their understanding of South African history. The author of numerous books, mainly on the history of colonialism and capitalism, he collected many of his key political writings in the 2007 Towards Socialist Democracy.

Curtis Nkondo was a South African diplomat, school teacher and politician with the African National Congress. Born in Louis Trichardt, Nkondo was a lifelong activist with the ANC. He was a high school teacher at Lamula High School in Meadowlands, Gauteng and eventually became the chairman of the Soweto Teachers Action Committee before being suspended for educating against apartheid. A year after the formation of the Azanian People's Organisation (AZAPO) in 1978, in September 1979, at its conference in Roodepoort the national executive was formed with Nkondo as its president. In 1980, Nkondo was suspended by AZAPO for Breach of principle.

The Congress Alliance was an anti-apartheid political coalition formed in South Africa in the 1950s. Led by the African National Congress, the CA was multi-racial in makeup and committed to the principle of majority rule.

The South African Youth Revolutionary Council (SAYRCO) was a South African political organisation. SAYRCO profiled itself as a 'third force' in the anti-Apartheid struggle. It was associated with the Black Consciousness Movement.

Zwelakhe Sisulu was a South African black journalist, editor, and newspaper founder. He was president of the Writers' Association of South Africa, which later became the Black Media Workers Association of South Africa, and he led a year-long strike in 1980 for fair wages for black journalists. He was a victim of the Apartheid-era government in South Africa and was imprisoned at least three times for his journalism. After Apartheid ended, he became the chief executive officer of the South African Broadcast Corporation.

Mkhuseli "Khusta" Jack was a South African Anti-Apartheid activist in the 1980s, known for his involvement in the Anti-Apartheid struggle and his efforts in the Consumer Boycott Campaign. Currently he is a businessman in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Dorothy Nomzansi Nyembe was a South African activist and politician.

Abu Baker Asvat, also known as Abu Asvat or Abu nicknamed Hurley was a South African medical doctor who practiced in Soweto in the 1970s and 1980s. A founding member of Azapo, Asvat was the head of its health secretariat, and involved in initiatives aimed at improving the health of rural black South Africans during Apartheid.



  1. 1 2 3 4 Vorster 2015, p. 4.
  2. Swilling 1987, p. 2.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Neocosmos, Michael (1996). "From People's Politics to State Politics: Aspects of National Liberation in South Africa, 1984-1994". Politeia. 15 (3). Archived from the original on 28 April 2003. Retrieved 17 September 2016.
  4. 1 2 Vorster 2015, p. 2-3.
  5. 1 2 3 4 "Botha Blocks Anti-Apartheid Donations". The Daily Herald. 10 October 1986. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  6. 1 2 Sitas 1992, p. 631.
  7. The UDF at 30: An organisation that shook Apartheid's foundation, by J. Brooks Spector, The Daily Maverick, 22 August 2013
  8. 1 2 3 Vorster 2015, p. 3.
  9. Swilling 1987, p. 3.
  10. "United Democratic Front (UDF)". South African History Online. 30 March 2011. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Arnold, Reid (13 May 2015). "Strong and Unnoticed: The Women of the UDF". South African History Online. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
  12. 1 2 Kraft, Scott (16 December 1989). "Convictions Overturned for 5 Leading South African Black Activists". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  13. 1 2 Parks, Micahael (9 May 1987). "Foreign Gifts Allowed for Apartheid Foes : Court Clears Way for United Democratic Front to Solicit Abroad". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  14. Good 2011, p. 322.
  15. 1 2 "Six Anti-Apartheid Leaders Are Arrested in South Africa On High Treason Charges". Santa Cruz Sentinel. 19 February 1985. Retrieved 14 September 2016 via Newspapers.com.
  16. 1 2 "Activists Convicted of Treason". The Salina Journal. 19 November 1988. Retrieved 14 September 2016 via Newspapers.com.
  17. 1 2 "Disbanding, 1990-1991". South African History Online. 30 March 2011. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  18. 1 2 3 Good 2011, p. 315.
  19. DeYoung, Curtiss Paul (2012). "Christianity: Contemporary Expressions". In Palmer, Michael D.; Burgess, Stanley M. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Religion and Social Justice. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 73. ISBN   9781405195478.
  20. Good 2011, p. 316.
  21. Sitas 1992, p. 632.
  22. 1 2 Hassim 2006, p. 73.
  23. "UDF Women's Congress". South African History Online. 30 March 2011. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  24. Hassim 2006, p. 74.
  25. "Albertina Sisulu". The Telegraph. 7 June 2011. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  26. 1 2 Schwarzer, Beatrix (2009). "Discourses on Race and Gender in South Africa's Transition Process: A Challenging Liaison". In Chima J., Korieh; Okeke-Ihejirika, Philomina. Gendering Global Transformations: Gender, Culture, Race and Identity. Routledge. ISBN   9781135893859.
  27. 1 2 Parks, Michael (16 December 1985). "Anti-Apartheid Front Launches New Campaign to Free Mandela". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  28. Good 2011, p. 311.
  29. Parks, Michael (3 February 1985). "Rivalries Hamper Anti-Apartheid Campaign : Splits Grow Among South Africa Blacks". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  30. "Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) Begins Their Defiance Campaign". South African History Online. 16 March 2011. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  31. "Mass Democratic Movement (MDM)". O'Malley: The Heart of Hope. Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  32. "The Mass Democratic Movement, February 1988 - January 1990". South African History Online. 30 March 2011. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  33. "Mass Democratic Movement (MDM)". O'Malley: The Heart of Hope. Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  34. https://mg.co.za/article/2018-04-12-how-do-we-write-about-winnies-life-sympathetically


Online Archives