The contribution of the UDF and People’s Power to South African freedom – Part six

12th September 2023

The contribution of the UDF and People’s Power to South African freedom – Part six

Raymond Suttner
Photo by: Madelene Cronje

Uneven non-sectarianism

The success of attempts to establish People’s Power, it has been suggested earlier, depended on being non-sectarian, in drawing in all people from communities where street committees and other popular power structures were set up. They were not specifically ANC or UDF structures.

That is not to say that they succeeded in achieving non-sectarianism in every case. There were many situations where UDF leaders had to intervene to stop the beating up of so-called “Zim Zims” (a contemptuous term for the Azanian Students Movement, AZASM), Black Consciousness Movement students and other black consciousness forces, and there were of course, provocations, with the Reverend Mzwandile Maqina in then Port Elizabeth, an expelled AZAPO (Azanian People’s Organisation) member, who was found by the TRC to have been a police agent, stirring up animosity between the UDF and Azapo. (

What I have been arguing is that the condition for the transition process to happen was the trampling under of the UDF, the destruction, and the erasure, the removal of popular power from the political terrain. This, as indicated, started in the late 1980s where the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) “stood in” for the banned UDF, most of whose leaders were in detention, but without the base that UDF affiliates and structures of People’s Power had built.

I was in State of Emergency detention when the MDM emerged and was part of the transition at a later stage, that of negotiations, though I was not myself directly involved in negotiations. I did not - at the time - see us erasing the UDF and I was myself still preoccupied with popular action, though I had not had time to take full stock of what had happened to organs of People’s Power.

I was not present at the last UDF meeting because I was already doing full-time ANC work in political education. I did not engage in discussions with other people to evaluate what it meant, to dissolve the UDF. It does not appear that there was extensive debate, again because of the fast pace of the transition, of which the UDF - that was crucial in bringing about that transition - was no longer a part. But it may be, as has often been stated, that the UDF did not exist without its affiliates, and that link had been largely destroyed before 1990 by state repression and the mode of functioning of the MDM that may have been the only possible way of “standing in” for the UDF without an organic link with affiliates.

While I was not in that meeting where the decision was taken to dissolve the UDF, I did not, I must admit, discuss what it meant and whether it was possible for the UDF or People’s Power to be revived, whether it was desirable for the UDF to continue as an organisation, independent of the ANC, or linked  to the ANC in some ways. Could it not have remained as an independent force, acting as a coordinator of sectoral organisations in the public political domain, because it must be remembered that the UDF was not simply a political organisation?

It had affiliates of a range of types, including small business affiliates, teachers and sports bodies. There were several affiliates that may well have been totally loyal to the ANC and the UDF certainly, however, they had distinct identities as affiliates.

There were no individual members of the UDF. They were members of affiliates, and those affiliates came from several sectors of society. They came from sections of society who brought to bear interests that were part of an overall unity, but with specific qualities and needs within the overall call for freedom and democracy in South Africa.

In the case of sports bodies, there were particular needs of people who derived from the oppressed communities who wanted to play sport in the townships and had no facilities, financial resources, sports fields, sports kits, coaches, nor opportunities for travel, and other barriers to playing various sports.

Likewise, Bantu Education was one of the worst aspects of apartheid and the area of education threw up a whole range of specific needs within the overall demands of the UDF and the ANC which needed to be realised. And we can see, although some UDF affiliates remained, albeit in weakened states, that education has been scandalously neglected in the post-1994 period, insofar as - among a litany of problems - we have a massive number of pit latrines in schools in this country where toddlers and other young kids have drowned in faeces.

We have many schools where literacy is seriously compromised, which are unsafe in that the buildings could collapse on the children. Many buildings that are not protected from rain in the winter, and other forms of dangerous conditions for which we did not prepare adequately when we let the UDF dissolve and its affiliates simply disappear as sectoral bodies into civil society and have no part in the political development of South Africa. (This is not to deny the important work of Equal Education, Section 27 and other NGOs or combinations of NGOs and social movements).

Twenty nine years into democracy it is reported that some 4 000 schools have asbestos structures, endangering children’s health by causing respiratory diseases and potentially leading to cancer. (, behind paywall).

This fall-out from the dissolution of the UDF is especially evident in the creation of SANCO, a national civic organisation, intended to take priority over locally created civic organisations. A national civic organisation is completely different from the type of civics that were established in the 1980s. The civics of the 1980s arose from the ground with a range of interests that people wanted to realise and established their civic organisations within various contexts to take those activities forward to the future. SANCO is a coordinating body, but its creation was part of the demise of most of the civics of the 1980s period, and the civics had been a key element of the UDF People’s Power period.


Some aspects of the practice of the UDF may also have paved the way for this. One of the factors that I believe is important to ask ourselves is whether the intolerance of pluralism, the idea that the ANC was the only organisation to lead the people of South Africa, the sole and authentic representative of the people, whether that was not part of the doctrine that paved the way for the erasure of the UDF, just as anti-pluralism continues in relation to people who manifest their being with a number of identities that are dismissed as “ethnic chauvinism”.

In other words, when someone identifies with a particular community, that is abaThembu or amaMpondo or sePedi speaking, or isiZulu speaking or following the cultural practices of various other communities, we need to avoid simply labelling this as “ethnic chauvinism”. The designation of tribalism or ethnicity cannot be equated with ethnic chauvinism.

This is how Joe Slovo (as well as many outside the “Congress” tradition) appeared to see it, more or less to be overridden by a national identity (and “social cohesion”). (See Joe Slovo, “The working class and nation-building” M. van Diepen, (ed) The National Question in South Africa. London, New Jersey. Zed books 1988, 145-6, 149, and ANC, 2007. ANC Strategy and tactics, Polokwane conference documents)

Having pride in one’s language and cultures is a completely legitimate and constitutionally protected right of people in this country. Being chauvinist is a quite different thing, as in the claims of a “Xhosa nostra” or in the common assertion in conversation that some sections of the African population are “backward” or dress garishly, and similar examples of prejudice or intolerance. And in fact, it seems that to assert your identities of certain types is inevitably depicted by some as a form of chauvinism.

How do we relate to/retrieve/engage distinct cultures and traditions?

I do not believe that decolonising or Africanisation of our curricula and of our knowledge systems is simply a case of retrieval of the past and of tradition. I think we must respect the past. But we must also engage with what has been inherited. Just as we may find some of the customs of the past to be useful and valuable, there are some elements that are incompatible with our freedom.

An obvious example is the use of the proverb from which ubuntu derives. Ubuntu can bear a range of different meanings. You have ubuntu armed response, ubuntu financial and catering services etc. This is not the same as what Archbishop Desmond Tutu had been advancing. Ubuntu needs to be debated and emancipatory thinkers need to argue for its bearing the most emancipatory meanings. (See Raymond Suttner, “Africanisation, identities and emancipation”, 2010 (September) Social Dynamics,15-30, available on request).

What we must ask ourselves is when we relate to the customs inherited by the African people, what customs do we try to change, what customs are valuable in themselves, or can be made valuable, subject to certain changes. A clear example is that of ukuthwala, the abduction and then often subsequent rape of a woman and forcing her into marriage is a custom but it's not a custom that's compatible with our Constitution and with the rights of women, and it should not be preserved as a cherished part of the past of the African people. (See HJ Simons, African Women. Their legal status in South Africa. 1968).

I am conscious that I'm not an African myself, though I do not believe this debars me from a contribution in good faith to a debate. However, it's very important that we open a debate rather than simply make a decision. But we need to ask ourselves whether there is not an alternative to, on the one hand, the blanket labelling of so called tribalism as ethnic chauvinism, and on the other, the worship of tradition as something that is unchallengeable and uncritically transmittable to the present day.

Ambiguous discourse

When one looks at the history of the UDF and People’s Power in the celebrations of this anniversary we have a very interesting engagement or interaction that has not come under discussion, between orthodox thinking and the new. Sometimes subconsciously one has an interaction between what was being done in that period that was new and the discourse within which it was framed.

I mentioned in the previous parts of this series that one of the key aspects was that the discourse that was orthodox in the liberation movement in the ANC and the UDF, where we spoke of transfer and seizure of power as a particular moment sometime in the future, when freedom would be realised, through taking control of the state.

But in the UDF period, the popular power period in particular, as had been done before this by the trade unions, was one where people were making their freedom there and then in their daily lives, by self-empowerment. Consequently, there was an interaction between a language that was orthodox even with those who were themselves creating organs of people's power there and then. The new interacted with the use of language that spoke of a particular moment of transfer, or seizure of power at some decisive moment. And I think we need to explore that further because that implies the notion of the state as a thing, rather than a series of relationships that had to be transformed to realise the gains of the Struggle and the freedom that was desired. That type of formulation remains part of the theoretical barrenness of the present.

This contribution and the series as a whole is intended to be a reflection on a period of which I was a part. It is an attempt to address some of the unfinished business, unfinished in that it has not been adequately reflected on. Engaging with this and broader questions of the transition here and on the rest of the continent is part of the attempt to recover the freedom that has experienced a battering in recent years.

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. He is a former member of the national leadership of the ANC abd SACP, from which organisations he severed links at the time of the rise of Jacob Zuma to leadership.

This article is the sixth and final part in a series to mark the 40th anniversary of the formation of the UDF. Previous parts of the series can be found here.