The UDF was not simply a creature of the ANC

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Kenneth Good responds to RW Johnson's dismissive comments on the Front.


At the end of his critique of the Democratic Alliance (April 1), RW Johnson offered some observations on the United Democratic Front: that it was ‘a pawn of the ANC', as was supposedly ‘demonstrated by the way in which the movement simply folded itself into the ANC without a murmur after 1990.'

He also asserted that the Front ‘largely accepted the ANC's "struggle narrative". These hackneyed claims go to the heart of the big events preceding the ANC's accession in 1994. They are all false, and their import is with the country still in many forms.

Two big processes were going on together through the 1980s: an externally generated armed struggle was nearing an end, and a domestic democratisation movement was increasing in size and in its theoretical understanding of politics and society. The former was led by the ANC, and it acquired large national and international support.

The latter was represented by the UDF, in association after 1985 with COSATU, and its achievements were mostly unrecognised and misunderstood. The relationship between the Front and the ANC was highly asymmetrical in terms of power and morality, and the differences became critical as the ANC neared state power and democracy was concretised in a conventional representative form.

From the late 1970s, a ramifying range of community groups had arisen, probably first in Soweto and the Eastern Cape, and then nation-wide, campaigning around issues such as housing, rents, and education. These struggles, said Swilling, strengthened a new political culture emphasising principles of non-collaboration with government institutions, non-racialism and, he noted, ‘democracy and mass-based direct action aimed at transforming urban living conditions.'

In January 1983, Allan Boesak called for a front to oppose specific apartheid changes, and after a series of regional conferences, the UDF was launched in Cape Town in August. Boesak says that fifteen hundred people were present, representing 500 organisations and all sectors of society. The Front's eventual affiliates included trade unions, youth and students, women's and religious groups, civic associations and political parties. Within a few years, it embraced almost 1,000 affiliated groups.[1]

As had previously been the case with the Black Consciousness Movement, the arrival of the UDF was not welcomed by the ANC. It ‘came as a shock to Thabo and the rest of the ANC leadership, note Hadland and Rantao, and they quote Mac Maharaj adding, ‘they didn't believe it would happen.' The well-informed Shubin agreed, and recalled an ANC friend telling him soon after: ‘If some of our people say that the UDF was made by us, don't believe them.'[2]

The distortion was supplemented significantly by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which simply assumed, without presenting supporting evidence, that the ANC ‘played a direct role' in their establishment.[3] Experienced commentators like Allister Sparks helped to spread the confusion that the Front was merely the ANC's predecessor and internal surrogate.

But the UDF did not look, sound or act like the highly centralised, secretive ANC. It had three levels of levels of leadership, national, regional and local, with much or most action concentrated in the lowest tier. Van Kessel noted that local affiliates ‘maintained their autonomy'.[4] Boesak, became the Front's elected patron, and believed that it was the spirit of the new group which provided its distinctiveness.

‘Spontaneity was one of the strong points of the UDF', and this would ‘time and again catch the government, and by the same token, the ANC, off guard.' From the beginning, ‘the UDF knew (and the ANC feared) that much action...was perforce going to be spontaneous', unplanned and uncontrolled. It was also ‘the UDF's hallmark of authenticity, and it was unavoidable in a truly people-driven movement.' The Front coordinated its affiliates, brought them under a reasonably strong national umbrella, and provided a platform. Small associations gained access to funding, some of which came through the Foundation for Peace and Justice which Boesak headed.[5]

Above all, he states, there was ‘the power of the UDF to inspire.' Within a year, the UDF became a formidable organisation with support at levels and among people that no organisation in South Africa had achieved before. By 1985, the Front had created ‘the beginnings of strong working relationships between community organisations, student movements and the trade unions.'[6]

Mkhuseli Jack was the son of a farm labourer and a domestic worker, and soon became a prominent community activist and UDF leader. In 1983 he was elected to the executive of the Port Elizabeth Civic Organisation (PEBCO). As a spokesman for the consumer boycott movement in the city, the 28 year old Jack ‘strode about as though he were mayor'. He was said to have an instinct for what ordinary people wanted and the burdens they could bear, and he negotiated pragmatically between white businesspeople, on one hand, and the UDF's national leaders, on the other. Matthew Goniwe was another outstanding activist. He founded the Craddock Residents' Association (CRADORA) in 1983.

If the Association called a meeting at four in the afternoon, it was said, the entire township could be assembled by six. His legacy was to create over six months a string of tightly coordinated small-town movements. Such deep organisations helped to make the UDF a formidable force across the Karoo. The other half of his legacy was his understanding of the means-ends process and the role and responsibilities of leadership therein. Shortly before his death at the hands of apartheid he wrote: "If we are instruments of change, we must epitomise the society we want to bring about. People see in us the society we want to bring about."[7]

What was happening in CRADORA and other local groups appeared to be well understood at the Front's national level: its theoretical journal Isizwe stated that the call ‘the people shall govern', enshrined in the Freedom Charter, was ‘beginning to happen in the course of our struggle. It is not for us to sit back and merely dream of the day that the people shall govern. It is our task to realise that goal now.'[8]

By 1987 the UDF's understanding of democracy involved participatory forms being built dynamically in the here and now. In the words of Murphy Morobe, democracy was ‘one of the aims or goals of our struggle' and also ‘the means by which we conduct the struggle...By developing active, mass-based democratic organisations and democratic practices within these organisations, we are laying the basis for a future democratic South Africa.'

In what was called the ‘basic principles of our organisational democracy' the UDF laid out creative measures for combating elitism within its own ranks and other purportedly democratic organisations: 1. Elected leadership at all levels, periodically re-elected and recallable; 2. Collective leadership, experience and knowledge must ve spread not hoarded; 3. Mandates and Accountability; 4. Reporting and Reporting Back (by leaders to the membership); and 5. Criticism and Self-Criticism of and by elites. ‘We do not believe that any of our members are beyond criticism, neither are organisations and strategies beyond reproach'. These principles were ‘fundamental weapons of our struggle'.[9] Their importance endures.

Under worsening circumstances the Front strove to uphold its norms. Pressures built up as state violence escalated, children as young as six were killed by police, and youthful activists resorted to cruel punishments against informers real and imagined. Boesak recalls his shock at the speed of events as ‘our own brutalisation' began. For him, the principle of non-violence ranked with spontaneity and inspiration within the means and ends relationship in the making of a democratic society.

Others took a different view, and he quotes Cheryl Carolus saying that ‘those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.' Violent struggle had been authoritatively endorsed by the ANC at its Kabwe Conference in Zambia in June 1985, when Joe Slovo, then chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), affirmed that there was ‘No Middle Road', and the only acceptable strategy was the revolutionary overthrow of apartheid.[10] The UDF and the democratisation movement was seemingly on notice.

Through Operation Vula, the ANC intended to terminate the UDF and the broad and deep democratisation it encouraged. Vula (open the way) was a clandestine military-political operation with dual aims. Devised and largely implemented by a small and highly secretive elite, it aimed to implant the armed struggle inside South Africa, and as Maharaj and his comrades liked to say, ‘to move towards a people's war'.

Simultaneously, senior ANC leaders would ‘take overall charge of the struggle'. (251)[11] President Oliver Tambo in Lusaka was in overall command, assisted by Slovo. The latter along with Chris Hani agreed fully about the need and feasibility of ‘people's war'.

By early 1987, Tambo and Slovo had selected Maharaj to go back into the country and establish a sophisticated communications infrastructure, carry out the caching of arms, and what was termed ‘on the spot military recruitment and training' (the untrained recruits were referred to merely as ‘the risen masses'). Hani was also selected, along with Jacob Zuma (of Mbokodo), as a third NEC (and SACP) member. Shubin was brought into the loop by Tambo and Slovo as ‘our key link on the Soviet side'. (245-253)

‘Taking overall charge' meant in fact that Vula ‘infiltrated the Mass Democratic Movement' (as the UDF had then become). It intended to ‘seduce MDM leaders', to ‘hijack their revolution in the making', and allow the ANC leadership in exile to return with ease and simply appropriate the organs of democratisation. What Boesak understood as the militarisation of the UDF and the stifling of democracy was well underway. (247-8)

From around late 1988, Maharaj was in close contact with leaders of the MDM, particularly, he says, with Jay Naidoo, Cyril Ramaphosa, Valli Moosa, Frank Chikane, Sydney Mufamadi and Morobe. These were told not to disclose they were working with him. Naidoo reports that he was invited to a surprise meeting with the Vula leader in Durban, and found him "highly secretive and manipulative". Vula's trademark he said was "conspiracy and intrigue".

Maharaj's "sense of political self-importance ignored much of the home-grown strategic capability within COSATU". Naidoo stressed he says that he remained willing to work with the ANC, but "would never take orders from him or anyone else outside the [trade union] constituency."[12]

Deepening the clandestine activities further was Operation Bible, whose role supplemented or duplicated Mbokodo's in aiming to ‘identify apartheid agents within the upper echelons of the movement'. Bible reported to Zuma both before and after he became deputy director of the stone that crushes--Gordin adds that ‘it had fallen under Zuma in 1988-89.'[13]

Vula-Bible's espionage necessarily embraced crime. Stockpiling large quantities of arms, for example, required financing, and the skills associated with white-collar crime. An important role was played here by the Shaik family of Durban, Schabir, Mo and Yunis. They arranged financial procedures, and ‘reported to Jacob Zuma' in the inter-twined Vula-Bible. This was in fact the start of ‘a close and enduring relationship' between the Shaiks, Zuma and Mac Maharaj.[14] The trio ‘cultivated police informers and set up front companies and dummy bank accounts.'[15]

People's War was given its last bloody expression in Bisho on 7 September 1992. The Ciskei government of Brigadier Oupa Gqozo was deeply unpopular and supposedly ripe for toppling. Ronnie Kasrils, a leading Vula operative, along with Hani, Steve Tshwete and Ramaphosa, led around 80,000 unarmed marchers against awaiting Ciskei troops, ‘to drive the pig from the barn'. The leaders narrowly escaped injury, but 29 other demonstrators were killed and more than 200 injured, some seriously, in sustained gunfire.[16]

De Klerk's inclusion of MK and the SACP among the unbanned organisations in February 1990, and the absence of stiff conditionalities, ‘came as [yet another] surprise' to Maharaj. Other events, national and international, brought further problems. Tambo's stroke in the previous August produced a leadership vacuum in the ANC, when decisiveness was pre-eminent.

Vula was uncovered by the police in July 1990, to the embarrassment of a disarrayed ANC: it signed the Pretoria Minute formally suspending its armed struggle in August. Over scarcely a year to mid-1990, seismic change proceeded in Europe and Southern Africa, and ‘suddenly', in Maharaj's consistently belated perceptions, people's war seemed like an archaic conception.

The closing down of the UDF by the ANC went remorselessly ahead. According to Seekings, the options facing the Front had narrowed to two between the end of 1990 and March 1991. One was to disband entirely as its very existence was held by the party to detract from the ANC's predominance. The other was to become a coordinator for organisations concerned with development. ‘Molefe and other national leaders', he says, ‘clearly favoured the second option.' Many others were being drawn into attractive positions in the ANC government-in-waiting.

When Molefe addressed the Front's National General Council in March 1991, he acknowledged that they could no longer operate on the basis of sufficient mandates and accountability. But the probably biggest causal factor is referred to only obliquely by Seekings, the UDF's unsympathetic historian: the remnants of the leadership faced a ‘burden of resentment and hostility', and the advocates of transformation floundered.

Seekings nowhere explains the actual cause and content of the ANC's hostility. The inescapable conclusion is that it lay in what distinguished the UDF over much of its short eight years, its openness, spontaneity, accountability and most of all in its advanced ideas and practise of democratisation.

Maharaj was a featured speaker at the disbandment of the Front. He began with the words, "I am a soldier", and he extolled the external armed struggle throughout his speech. It seemed to indicate that no mere appropriation of the UDF was occurring. that an erasure of their values and achievements was taking place. Criticism and self-criticism was at issue, as ANC president Nelson Mandela clarified in a four hour address at the party's 50th national conference in Mafikeng in December 1997.

Certain elements which were assumed to be part of our movement, he said, "had set themselves up as critics of the same movement." They had wished to establish "an NGO movement separate from and critical of the ANC", and "we all arrived at the decision...that it was necessary to close down the UDF."[17]

The differences in political values between the ANC and the UDF were indeed large, they focussed on democracy and its accompaniments like criticism, accountability and openness, and the proponents of such concerns were unacceptable to the ruling party. But closing down a movement was one thing, and erasing its values was another, as the ferment within the trade unions today seems to indicate. The ‘principles of our organisational democracy', dealing with elitism and non-accountability within popular organisations, have currency beyond the 1990s. Spontaneity and that capacity to inspire could be relevant too.  

By: Kenneth Good

Kenneth Good is adjunct professor in global studies at RMIT University Melbourne, and visiting professor in political studies at Rhodes University Grahamstown.

Article Source: Politics Web