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People's Power - the 20th Anniversary of the UDF

17 August 2003

This week we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the launch of the United Democratic Front. The UDF played an absolutely critical role in our transition to democracy. The political culture and traditions it helped to nurture continue to impact significantly on the present.

Launched on August 20th 1983, the UDF was a front of some 700 civic, workers, women's, student, youth, faith-based, sporting and cultural affiliates. Its initial objective was to organise a massive boycott of the apartheid regime's constitutional reform measures, designed to include Coloured and Indians in junior parliaments within a "tricameral" system, and to provide for some dummy representation for urban Africans at the township level. The boycotts in 1984 succeeded dramatically, putting the regime's "reformist" agenda completely off-balance.

But if the UDF was a front of hundreds of affiliates, it was also a front for the banned ANC and its alliance partners, the SACP and SACTU. The overwhelming majority of UDF activists saw themselves as ANC-aligned. Following the success of the boycott campaign, the UDF increasingly occupied the vacuum of above-board national political organisation and mobilisation. However, not all ANC supporters within the country immediately accepted the UDF. Key progressive trade unions remained outside of the UDF, although after the 1985 launch of COSATU, the working relationship became very close.

People's Power

It was in the course of 1985 that the UDF, propelled by events on the ground in numerous townships, made perhaps its most significant contribution. Following the successful election boycott in April 1994, the UDF was uncertain of a precise way forward.

Then a new wave of popular struggle, beginning in the Vaal Triangle in September 1994, provided fresh challenges. This new upsurge was not initially directed by the UDF, it emerged out of the social crises in the townships of the Vaal, in Tumahole, Atteridgeville, the East Rand, and Cradock. Absolutely critical to these developments were thousands of activists, one of the most outstanding was Matthew Goniwe, a school teacher in Cradock, an underground SACP cadre, and soon thereafter a martyr.

In townships like these, the struggle moved up a gear from boycott to ungovernability, rendering key townships semi-liberated zones, at least for months at a time. And then, organically, these struggles began to address the challenge of moving from relative ungovernability (by the apartheid regime) to self-governance, people's power. This grass-roots popular power organised street committees, people's courts, alternative education, people's parks, rubbish removal, and, later, self-defence units.

Much of this happened organically, more or less spontaneously in the context of township crises and struggles. However, the UDF increasingly provided a strategic theoretical perspective to these developments. It helped to popularise the idea of people's power, using its web of affiliate networks, it spread the example of one township to other townships. ANC and SACP underground structures, and media from our formations, including the very influential role of Radio Freedom, were also central to advancing these strategic perspectives.

It is interesting to note how the UDF began to understand this emergent people's power at the time. The official journal of the UDF, Isizwe, wrote:

"It is true that the fullest consolidation of people's power is still in the future. It is true that control over central state power is the key to many thingsĀ…Nevertheless, the building of people's power is something that is already 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."

It is possible to discern in this passage an identical logic (although, of course, referring to a related but different content), to the logic that informs the SACP's current slogan, "Socialism is the Future, Build it Now". Struggle on the ground enabled the UDF to understand that the future had to be built in the present. Mass mobilisation is not just a tap to be turned on and off, depending on some national political objective. Mass mobilisation is not just directed instrumentally at a single objective - the capture of state power (whether by insurrection or election). The character and quality of the future is determined, in considerable measure, by the form and content, the transformative nature of tens of thousands of actual, present-day struggles of working people and the poor.

Social movements

The 20th anniversary of the UDF comes at a time when debate about the role and trajectory of social movements is again an important and contested subject. This past weekend's Secretariat Political Report to the Central Committee, devoted considerable attention to the topic of social movements.

In our discussions as the CC we agreed that there were two tendencies that need to be avoided when approaching social movements in our current situation. The one tendency is over-bureaucratisation, which can occur from within or from without. There is a danger that social movements will be captured by elite gate-keepers, transforming them from vibrant localised activities and struggles, into national formations that act as interlocutors with government "on behalf of" a real or claimed constituency. A related, but converse tendency, occurs when there is simple irritation and dismissiveness on the part of authorities when social movements are not easily funnelled into this kind of tame bureaucratic compliance, acting as transmission belts for government.

On the other hand, there is the very real danger that social movements will increasingly appropriate what is, in fact, a liberal perspective on state power. This is the danger that they will increasingly develop an anti-politics politics, seeing themselves as, by definition, oppositionist. "Ungovernability" becomes an end in itself. This latter danger gravely underestimates the significance of our democratic, popular breakthrough in 1994. It abandons the possibilities opened up by a range of new potential sites of popular power - from localised community policing forums and ward committees to national structures like parliament and government departments. Needless to say, where social movements neglect active engagement with the state, they contribute to the bureaucratisation of the state, rather than helping to transform it.

For all of these reasons, it is important how we remember the UDF in the present, how we draw lessons from this important chapter of our struggle history. In some quarters, there is a tendency to present the UDF experience as an "alternative" to the ANC, or to draw a crude division (as if it were possible to do this) between comrades emerging from the UDF experience and those "from exile". This is dangerous, divisive and historically inaccurate. It is, therefore, very correct that cde Frank Chikane, once a key UDF leader and now the most senior official in the Presidency, should write that the UDF was "the direct result of a strategic decision of the liberation movement to intensify the levels of mass resistance inside the country."

Cde Chikane is right to assert this. Just as it would be right to assert that the UDF was the direct result of relatively autonomous, township based struggles against repression. The UDF was also the direct consequence and inheritor of a long tradition of communal and solidaristic struggles, ranging from village izimbizo, to stokvels and burial societies, through to the more overtly political traditions of the Congress of the People, and the defiance campaigns. The UDF was also the direct result of the 1976 semi-insurrectionary struggles of township students, and of a growing sense of black solidarity among African, Coloured and Indian youth. It was the direct result of the growing urbanisation and proletarianisation of African people, and the re-emergence of radical trade-unionism. It was a direct response, also, to the apartheid regime's repressive-reform strategy.

The UDF was inspired by the ANC-led liberation movement. But the UDF also inspired the liberation movement, helping to develop in practice a qualitatively new element (organs of popular power) within our struggle, and in the concrete conditions of South Africa .

In 2003, we must not fall behind the achievements of the mid-1980s, by seeking to bureaucratise, manipulate or even demobilise social movements. Equally, in 2003, we must not fall behind the breakthrough of 1994, conducting ourselves as if we had no access to, or responsibility for state power. As last weekend's Central Committee affirmed, we must continuously fuse state power and popular power. We must build an active, effective developmental state and vibrant social and community based formations rooted amongst the working class.