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The contribution of the UDF and People’s Power to our understandings of freedom – Part one


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The contribution of the UDF and People’s Power to our understandings of freedom – Part one

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

7th August 2023

By: Raymond Suttner


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When one looks at the statements made in commemorating 40 years since the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) one does not generally get a sense that there has been a fresh examination of the practices and meanings of the UDF as a period and phenomenon. It is correct that the UDF be celebrated, but it is also necessary to probe its meanings.

There is not one meaning. What the UDF and the period of popular power signified varied according to classes, strata, population groups, generations, geographical locations and a range of other factors, only some of which can be canvassed in this short series. [See for example, Ineke van Kessel, Beyond Our Wildest Dreams: The United Democratic Front and the Transformation of South Africa (Charlottesville and London, University Press of Virginia, 2000).]


The focus here is on the contribution of the UDF to freedom, to the qualities and potential scope of freedom.

Undoubtedly, the period of the UDF when “ungovernability” and then People’s Power emerged was a crucial factor in bringing about political conditions that led to a negotiated settlement and ultimately constitutional democracy. The resistance of the 1980s made it impossible for the apartheid regime to govern without continued disruption. At the same time, the forces of resistance were not dealing with an enemy on its knees and this condition, that Antonio Gramsci refers to as a “reciprocal siege”, was conducive to a peaceful settlement (


What was negotiated, the Constitution and other institutions that we have today, do constitute freedom compared with the period of the apartheid regime. These signify one of the meanings of freedom in South Africa because the UDF period struggled for the vote, but also bore a character beyond representative democracy, and other meanings that have existed historically in South Africa and other parts of the world. (See Govan Mbeki, The Peasants Revolt (1964) on the Mpondoland uprising of the 1950s, where a mountain court was established, and on democratic experiences more generally, Anthony Arblaster, Democracy, 3 ed 2002).

That is not to say that the UDF and People’s Power period simply displaced well-established formulations. There were discourses and practices that went beyond these, but the new often coexisted with established formulations. 

The language of the People’s Power period often worked with orthodox formulations despite their practices being in many respects in contradiction with that orthodoxy. This may be understandable insofar as popular power emerged in a period of extreme repression and also insurrection, not in academic seminars where formulations and consistency could be debated with a single-minded focus, as I am trying to apply now.

UDF and enhancing the meanings of the first clause of the Freedom Charter

The notion of freedom that was prevalent in the discourse of the ANC-led liberation movement at the time of the formation of the UDF, and even enduring throughout the period of  People’s Power, was one where activists were aiming to realise the first clause in the Freedom Charter, which reads, “The people shall govern!” and this was to be achieved through the “transfer of power” to the people or the “seizure of power”. (I return to problems with these formulations in subsequent parts).

The clause declaring: “The People Shall Govern!” is at once simple and complex. Its meaning is not obvious and in the decades that followed the adoption of the Freedom Charter it may have come to be understood in new ways, augmenting and expanding the interpretations prevalent in 1955 (see Part Two).

This resulted less from the flourishing of debates than from struggles on the ground in the 1980s, what is called “mass creativity” in radical textbooks. In other words, the driving force for enhanced notions of democratic expression was not interpretative skill, though interpretation would be important, but that there were popular initiatives in the years that followed that amplified the potential ways the Charter could be understood.

Freedom Charter and representative democracy

One of the reasons for commemorating the UDF’s anniversary is a sense that there needs to be a return to more democratic practices, and for some of us that means popular agency, popular organisation, popular initiatives and self-empowerment as ways of broadening and deepening our democracy. While the UDF period had specific experiences that went beyond the vote, this does not imply that representative democracy - having the right to vote periodically - is of no value.

It is true that historically, representative democracy was introduced to limit the role of the popular, and equally true that at least one distinguished writer regards the words “representative democracy” as a contradiction in terms. (See, for example: the Nigerian scholar Claude Ake, The feasibility of democracy in Africa, Council for the development of social science research in Africa, Codesria, Dakar, 2000, pp 6-32).

This is because the concept of democracy in itself, in its original meaning, refers to the people ruling, not others representing them in order to rule. (See Aristotle, The Politics, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962, pp 155,159).

Representative democracy cannot simply be discarded

That may be the case, but representative democracy has, in some contexts including South Africa, represented an advance compared with what existed before. While representative democracy (which, itself varies in its character) may not be ideal compared with some of the experiences of direct democratic initiatives that have been seen in our own country and elsewhere, it is nevertheless much better to have electoral democracy than military or apartheid rule.

In our case apartheid signified disenfranchisement as part of a broader denial of rights and oppression of the majority of the population. Whites, in contrast, enjoyed all the benefits of representative democracy (commonly referred to as liberal democracy, though it is not only liberals who practise it). 

For that reason, “one man (person) one vote” was a crucial demand and there were songs at the time of the Freedom Charter in the 1950s that conveyed this. Dorothy Nyembe, when interviewed in Phoenix settlement in 1985, said: “All the demands of the Charter point straight to Parliament.” 

She then sang:

Chief Luthuli, Dr Naicker (three times)

Yibona ‘bonsimel’  epalamende

These will represent us in Parliament.

Dr Dadoo umhol’wethu (three times)

Dr Dadoo is our leader

Uyena ozosihol’ epalamende

Will lead us in Parliament

Dr Dadoo umhol’ wethu (three times)

Dr Dadoo our leader

Uyena ozosihol’ sisepalamende

He’s the one to lead us in Parliament.

(From: Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin, 30 Years of the Freedom Charter, Ravan Press, pp. 252-3. I do not use the later edition, 50 years of the Freedom Charter, Unisa Press: 2006, because it contains errors in the isiZulu). 

Chief Albert Luthuli was the ANC President at the time, Dr Yusuf Dadoo the President of the Transvaal Indian Congress and later chair of the SACP. Dr Monty Naicker was President of the Natal Indian Congress and later President of the South African Indian Congress.

In the current constitutional order, all adults have the right to vote but insofar as we wish this experience to be as democratic as possible and not simply periodic voting, we need to interrogate how it can work in a manner that is as empowering as possible to those who are “represented”.

In the first place, our Constitution and the rules of Parliament make provision for popular involvement in law making; there is space for objections to laws and other matters to be raised precisely to make the “voice of the people” part of the process. This is not always effective because many who are prejudiced by laws do not have the resources to intervene effectively.

Many do not understand legal technicalities and do not have access to the specialists who could help them do so. Or when the specialists do assist them, they solve problems on their behalf, that is, without the popular role, the voice of the people most affected, being part of the process. Instead, there is a technical intervention of specialists.

There are, however, some NGOs and research institutes [like the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), Section 27, Legal Resources Centre (LRC), and others] that work with communities in order to marry the expertise of the specialists to that of the communities who undergo hardship.

That type of collaboration is one of the ways in which the voice of the masses is heard in democratic law making (or the prevention of legislation that is anti-popular). And for that to be meaningful it needs to be deepened and broadened through transmission of skills to communities and their organisations. That way people understand how they are affected by laws that are presented as being in their interest, but may in fact be aimed at denying what they need or undermining what they value.

When Dorothy Nyembe and others sang of being represented by their revered leaders, they understood these leaders to embody a close relationship with the communities they were from. They believed they represented the aspirations of the oppressed. They understood there to be a connection between themselves and those who went to Parliament, a bond that would not be broken once these people entered the law-making chambers to represent them. They trusted them and had no reason to doubt that the trust would be respected.

The notion of representation, John Hoffman and Paul Graham argue, “involves empathy - the capacity to put yourself in the position of another - and while it is impossible to actually be another person, it is necessary to imagine what it is like to be another.”

This notion of representation accords with that of connectedness, mutuality and solidarity, acting with compassion and passion in relation to those who need one’s assistance or whom one has the capacity to assist.

Furthermore, Hoffman and Graham stress (as has been emphasised by many writers on the UDF anniversary) that in this relationship of representation, accountability is central and they also link it to Parliament itself being representative of the various components of the population:

“Accountability is ‘the other side’ of representation: one without the other descends into either impracticality or elitism. The notion of empathy points to the need for a link between representatives and constituents. Unless representatives are in some sense a reflection of the population at large, it is difficult to see how empathy can take place. Women who have experienced oppression by men (or partners) at first hand, are more likely to have insight into the problems women face than men who - however sympathetic they may be - may have never been the recipients of that particular form of discrimination.  The same is true of ethnic and sexual minorities, etc…”

For those who argue for direct democracy, as I do, Hoffman and Graham caution that participation need not mean that it can only happen through direct involvement in political processes. “Direct involvement needs to be linked to representation, and it is worth noting that in the ancient Greek polis - often held up as an example of direct democracy - the assembly elected an executive council.” (Introduction to Political Theory. 2 ed. Pearson Longman: London. 2009, p. 110)

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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