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The contribution of the UDF and People’s Power to our understanding of freedom – Part three


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The contribution of the UDF and People’s Power to our understanding of freedom – Part three

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

22nd August 2023

By: Raymond Suttner


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The UDF as both an agent of the ANC as well as autonomous actor

This is Part three in a series. Read Part one and two.


The relationship between the ANC and UDF is an important and difficult question, read in different ways by authors examining the question. There are some statements of ANC figures suggesting that the ANC set up the UDF or directed the UDF, as the apartheid state alleged.

There is no doubt that the ANC had for some years wanted to see the development of mass organisation within the country, the reoccupation of the leadership space by organisations advancing the broad vision of the Congress movement, the term used to refer to the ANC and allied organisations (cf ANC Green Book 1979. I have not been able to check whether or not this is the full version. What I have was originally online then removed and has a prefatory page that is not in this online edition).


It is clear that the establishment of a broad front of popular organisations corresponded in many respects with what was required and recognised by the ANC as necessary to remedy organisational deficiency on the ground. The opening up of “legal space” in order to pursue mass mobilisation and organisation constituted what the ANC described as one of its “four pillars” of struggle.  The other pillars were international struggle, armed struggle and underground organisation.

But that does not mean the ANC “set up” the UDF, nor that it controlled the UDF and its affiliates. This is well captured in an interview of the late ANC President, Oliver Tambo, originally published in 1984:

“We called for united action to resist… We called for mobilisation of our entire forces. We called for united action, 1982 and 1983. It was necessary that we should meet this new offensive by the enemy as a united democratic force. Nothing else would help. I think our people responded remarkably to this call. The emergence of the UDF was exactly what we were talking about during the year of Unity in Action, 1982. It was what we envisaged in our call in 1983 for United Action. We had called for confrontation with the enemy on all fronts, by all our people in their various organisational formations. The response to this call was the emergence of the UDF.”

“Question:… The regime says one of the reasons why it is taking action against the UDF leadership is that the UDF is a front of the ANC. Now if we say that the emergence of the UDF and present day mass upsurge is a result of organisation and mobilisation by the ANC, does it follow that the UDF is a creation of the ANC?”

“Tambo: NO! NO! It does not follow, because the ANC has for a long time now, ever since it was banned, actually called on the people to organise themselves: any organisation, even where it differed with the ANC, provided only it was oriented against the apartheid system, we supported it. So we have encouraged the formation of organisations. These 700 organisations that belong to the UDF were not created by the ANC.

“But the ANC has called on the people to organise themselves, whether they organise themselves into ping-pong clubs or whatever it is, but we said, organise and direct your attention and activity to freeing yourselves so that you become human beings and citizens of your own country, which you are not!” (Oliver Tambo, Interview, in Mayibuye, nos 10, 11. 1984, Reprinted in Umrabulo, 19. 2003)

There is little doubt that members of the ANC underground played a role in UDF organisations and affiliates, but that is not the same as saying the ANC, whether from outside or in the underground, “ran” the UDF. Yet a reality of the time was that many members of UDF affiliates saw themselves as carrying out the mandates of the ANC. Every night many would tune in at 7pm to listen to Radio Freedom (the ANC station broadcasting from a number of African states. See interview, for example, with Pharepare [General] Mothupi, Polokwane 2004).

Wherever possible they would obtain ANC and SACP literature. Of particular interest was the January 8 statement on the anniversary of the ANC. Here the organisation mapped out a general strategic vision and also specific “tasks” for various sectors. It might read: “to the students we say” and address students, suggesting in general terms what they felt were necessary political tasks in the year that lay ahead. Many activists in the UDF would pore over these words and extract meanings for what they should do in their specific sectors and organisations.

But the authors of the January 8 statements did not know the detailed conditions confronted in the various sectors and organisations, and in parts of the country facing distinct problems and possibilities. Consequently, the way this guideline or broad vision was interpreted remained in the hands of the affiliate. It was not ANC headquarters in Lusaka, nor UDF headquarters in Johannesburg that dictated how these “instructions” or “the line of march” was interpreted.

And many a time the interpretation given on the ground was one that may well have surprised those who made the initial call for particular activities to be engaged in. For example, when the ANC leadership called for the building of elementary organs of People’s Power, they could not envisage the distinct issues and opportunities in the various parts of South Africa. The building of people’s parks, or establishment of street committees, or involvement in various community mediation efforts was the result of initiatives of people on the ground.

The local activists generally saw themselves carrying out ANC policy, but the details could only be worked out in the practical conditions faced in specific townships.

But the ANC knew the language that would mobilise people to do things, often better than the UDF leadership. In the mid-1980s, the UDF leadership wanted students to return to schools, shortly after the establishment of the Soweto Students’ Crisis committee, which later helped initiate the national body, the NECC (National Education Crisis Committee).

A delegation visited Lusaka to seek assistance. The ANC issued a statement exhorting the students to return, saying that the classrooms were their “trenches”. They did return, albeit not on a long-term basis. One may regret the use of military terms, but that was the language that worked and the ANC had the skill in its communications to know what imagery would be effective with which constituencies.

The UDF and its affiliates popularised the ANC, but it was not an invention of, or set up by the ANC or a surrogate for the organisation. Govan Mbeki is therefore not sufficiently accurate in his characterisation of the 1980s: “[T]he ANC had captured the political centre stage and established its hegemony through structures like the United Democratic Front…” (Sunset at Midday. Latshon’ilang’emini!, Braamfontein: Nolwazi Educational Publishers.1996: x, my emphasis).

Nor is he correct in referring to the mass uprising of the 1980s as “directed and coordinated by the ANC underground…” (1996: xi.) This is not to suggest that the ANC underground was unconnected to the legal struggle. MK played a role, for example, in assisting stayaways on occasions by blowing up railway lines, thus making it difficult for those who wanted to go to work to do so.  

Many MK interventions were attempts to complement civic grievances, for example, attacks on Bantu Administration buildings or in the case of the attack on the Soekmekaar police station - probably the first of such assaults, directed against police who had been involved in forced removals (Interview Petros “Shoes” Mashigo 2003). And underground propaganda units often issued pamphlets in support of specific community action.

Many underground activists played a role in UDF structures, but that is not the same as “directing and coordinating” them. That would not have coexisted easily with the culture of the UDF, where understandings of internal democracy made it difficult for a small group (which underground units were by definition) to direct an organisation.

This is not an attempt to counterpose the democratic qualities of the UDF to inevitably less democratic qualities of the underground. But the different modes of operation and cultures of political work made it impossible for so large a phenomenon to be directed and coordinated in the way Mbeki suggests. The underground may have had democratic goals, but its mode of organisation had, by definition, to be conspiratorial (see Raymond Suttner, The ANC Underground, 2008, especially, chapter five).

It may well be that various underground groups had great influence, just as other powerful personalities carried great weight, but all positions had to be won democratically. This, of course, applied less when there was extreme repression and when the states of emergency were in place.

In that situation, internal democracy contracted and those who could adapt best to those conditions undoubtedly had greater influence. Also, practices occurred that were out of line with many of the fundamental tenets of the UDF. But this does not establish anything about the influence of the underground or ANC generally on the UDF.

It is not clear who were best able to take advantage of whatever disarray state repression caused. Was it the ANC underground or the “comtsotsis” (a term used to describe gangsters, known as “tsotsis”, who posed as “comrades”.  That is not to deny that some gangster elements made their way into the UDF in their own right, not by posing as comrades)? It is not clear and may have varied from situation to situation.

The relationship between the ANC and UDF was complex, for while UDF was not a tool of the ANC, very many of its activists did see themselves as falling under ANC discipline. Obviously they interpreted this in a variety of ways. But they saw themselves as carrying out broad strategies of the ANC. This self-perception is one of the reasons why the UDF did not consider continuing after the unbanning of previously illegal organisations. There was a tendency on the part of the UDF to see itself as a “curtain raiser” before the main team arrived on the field, a type of “B-team mentality”. And it is probably the reality that most members of affiliates of the UDF did see themselves falling under the leadership of Lusaka.

But there were other options, such as the possible continuation of a coordinating body like the UDF enduring, parallel to the ANC, in order to link to a number of sectoral organisations. One of the reasons why this was not considered was that there was a sense that they should return to the “changing rooms”, to make way for the main team. They did not realise that in addition to what the “A-team” may have done and could still do, there was something specific that the period of the 1980s had brought into the political arena.

The UDF also coordinated organisations pursuing a wider range of activities than any political organisation could ever do. A political organisation concerns itself with politics, which, however broadly conceived, can never be so wide as to encompass all the activities of sectorally focused organisations.

The UDF saw its own intervention in a very modest light. In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Karl Marx remarks on the unwillingness of people who are doing something really new to see or depict it that way. He refers to the tendency to attribute inspiration to those who have gone before them, to dress what they are doing in the garb of those who preceded them:

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirit of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle - cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language…” (K. Marx, 1984 [1869], The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, London: Lawrence & Wishart. At10).

From the outset, the UDF clothed itself in the Congress garb, especially of the 1950s, and indeed it was part of that tradition. It was part of the ANC in the broad sense. But a former UDF and ANC leadership figure and one time Director-General in the office of President Thabo Mbeki, Rev Frank Chikane blurs the importance of the UDF, independent of the ANC connection, when he writes:

“Looking back, the UDF taught us all very profound lessons in leadership. In the first instance, the leadership of the UDF always saw themselves as the interim leaders of the movement in the context of the banning of the peoples’ organisations and the imprisonment of our leaders. We saw ourselves very much as ‘holding the fort’ for the leadership in jail or in exile… The United Democratic Front was indeed a holding operation, albeit a very important one!” (Chikane, F. Rev.,‘The Origins and Significance of the United Democratic Front (UDF)’, in Umrabulo, June 2003).

While the UDF did hold the fort, it also represented something qualitatively new. The UDF recovered some of the legacy of the 1950s that had been ruptured in the repression of the 1960s, but it went beyond that. A whole generation had grown up without access to literature about the Congress movement. This is not to say that the memory was wiped out, but there was a rupture, organisationally, in terms of symbols and also the free and widespread diffusion of values.

The UDF reconnected people to that tradition, but it also went beyond that and beyond anything that had been practised by leadership, whether in exile or in prison. It was only people on the ground in the various arenas of struggle who had that opportunity. It does not reflect on the quality of leadership or organisation elsewhere to say that something new was being done which extended the horizons of the liberation movement.

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He was actively involved in the UDF and in advocating People’s Power. This led to his spending much of the 1980s underground, in State of Emergency detention or under house arrest. 


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