Letter to Madiba – lest we forget the 1980s

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Dear Madiba,

Forgive me, but I think I would have preferred to take the liberty of addressing you as Nelson – after all, this is what we call those who we think we know well. But alas, I must stick with a name that is a mark of respect. We only shook hands once soon after you were released, but of course you won’t remember me because I was there in support of a much larger group called the Soweto People’s Delegation (SPD) led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Cyril Ramaphosa. The SPD had begun negotiations with the state in 1989 ostensibly in pursuit of solutions to the problems that had triggered the prolonged Soweto Rent Boycott.

But I guess this sense of intimacy that makes me think I can address you as Nelson stems from the saturation coverage of the last week that has so profoundly reminded me of the history that has shaped the current state of our nation. You were buried on 15 December 2013. But what struck me most was the reminder that you chose 16 December 1961 to announce the launch of the armed struggle – the day that was celebrated by Afrikaners as the Day of the Covenant to commemorate the historic military defeat of the Zulu forces at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. With the tragedy of the Sharpeville Shoortings still fresh in world memory, choosing this symbolic day to launch the armed struggle against white domination must clearly have been a source of inspiration for you and your comrages; but with hindsight it is also a reminder that a great injustice can be reversed even if it means starting very small with nearly no resources. I can only imagine what you would have said if I was there then to predict that 35 years later you would sign a new democratic Constitution for South Africa in Sharpeville on 10 December 1996 (which was, incidentally, also by then International Human Rights Day) with Cyril Ramaphosa looking over your shoulder. Yes, I would have said, ’35 years is a long time, but Nelson it is still within your lifetime!’ And now, 5 days after the 16th anniversay of this historic moment, you have departed leaving behind a legacy that I sincerely hope we can live up to.

What struck me most is that your departure brings to an end the era of the ‘the elders of the struggle’. I was not part of your generation. I was part of what is often referred to as the ’80s generation’. Different to your generation and the ’76 generation’, the ’80s generation’ experienced the consolidation of mass struggles across all sectors of society that culminated in the two States of Emergency (in 1985 and again in 1986), followed by the hunger strikes of 1989, the unbanning of political organizations and release of political prisoners. While the saturation coverage was mainly about your life, the national process of reconciliation that you led and the first golden years of our democracy, there was on occasion footage of the struggles of the 1980s and 1990s that effectively made South Africa ungovernable by the apartheid regime. In my view, it was this rolling popular rebellion that two States of Emergy could not quell that created the conditions for political negotiations and the subsequent transition to democracy. It was this that reminded me of an article I once wrote in 1987 about the United Democratic Front that captured the complex dynamics of these mass democratic struggles that transformed our workplaces, communities and schools in the lead-up to the signing of the Groote Schuur Minute on 4 May 1990. At your funeral in Qunu the crowd sang a song appealing to you not to forget us, to always be there to remind us of our history and highest possible ideals. Confident that you will heed this call, I thought I would take the liberty of including the full text of this artcle here for you to read as you make your departure. You will note that I have argued that as the decade of the 1980s was drawing to a close, there were definite signs of increasing radicalisation of the grassroots movements in the workplace and communities. As I am sure you also noticed before you departed, today there are many signs of similar trends across the country. You have left us at a difficult time. But hopefully you will remind us to look back at the 1980s lest we forget what can happen when we South Africans get really fed up.

By Mark Swilling
Published in: Work in Progress, 9 September 1987
Recent years have witnessed mass opposition to apartheid. Fighting in the townships, labour unrest, classroom revolts, rent strikes, consumer boycotts, worker stayaways and guerilla warfare have become familiar features of South Africa’s political landscape since 1976. But with the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983, radical opposition assumed a more organized form.
Resistance became increasingly effective because of the UDF’s capacity to provide a national political and ideological centre. However, the township revolt was not caused by strategies formulated and implemented by UDF national leadership. With the exception of key national campaigns (e.g. the black local authorities election boycotts of 1983-84 and the anti-tri-cameral parliament campaigns), the driving force of resistance came from below, as communities responded to their terrible living conditions. As these local struggles spread, the UDF played an important role in putting forward common national demands for the dismantling of apartheid. Black communities were drawn into a national movement which believes the transfer of political power to representatives of the majority is a precondition for the realization of basic economic demands. These include decent shelter, cheap transport, proper health care, adequate education, the right to occupy land and the right to a living wage.

The UDF is formed
In January 1983 Allan Boesak, speaking at the conference of the Anti-South African Indian Council campaign, called for the formation of a front to oppose the government’s tri-cameral constitutional proposals. This call was later expanded to include opposition to new influx control laws and local government structures for Africans, based on the ‘Koornhof Bills’. The Black Local Authorities Act of 1982 was particularly isolated for attack: it provided for the establishment of autonomous municipal institutions in the African townships. The UDF was launched as a national body at a meeting in Cape Town on 20 August 1983. About 600 organisations eventually affiliated. They included trade unions, youth organizations, student movements, women’s groups, religious groups, civic associations, political parties and a range of support and professional organizations. The UDF was conceived of as a front, a federation to which different groups could affiliate and a body which could link different social interests with common short-term objectives. Since early 1984, literally hundreds of community organizations allied to the UDF have sprung up around the country. And although the major trade union federations have not formally affiliated, they have developed strong working relationships with the UDF over the years. Ad hoc and constituency-based committees were established to handle specific campaigns or represent particular groups with special grievances. Well-known ad hoc organization included the consumer boycott committees and burial committees. Examples of groups represented by constituency committees included squatters, communities threatened with forced removals, commuters opposed to their transport conditions, hostel dwellers, traders, detainees, unemployed groups, professionals and the various crisis committees. The complex patchwork of local community organizations which became the organizational foundation of the UDF developed out of local urban struggles that took place before and after the formation of the front. At first these struggles involved minor conflicts between communities and local authorities over issues such as transport, housing, rent and service charges. But the authorities’ coercive responses and refusal to make concessions transformed the local urban struggles into campaigns with a national political focus. This transformation was not the simple outcome of local ‘reformist’ organisations affiliating to the front’s national multi-class programme. Rather, these struggles contained an increasingly powerful national challenge to the state’s racial and class character which the front expressed instead of directly instigating.

Working-class or petty-bourgeois leaders?
The mixed social and class composition of UDF leadership belies attempts to explain its ideological position in simplistic class categories. Some have claimed the UDF has a ‘petty-bourgeois leadership’. This implies the UDF is dominated by people of petty-bourgeois class origin and so cannot be expected to adopt a proletarian ideology. It is questionable whether ideological affiliation is reducible to class origins, but even so, this argument misrepresents the class origins of UDF leadership. Although the UDF is a multi-class front, a high proportion of its leadership comes from poor working-class origins. The current Eastern Cape regional executive is a good example. Its president, Edgar Ngoyi, is a building painter by profession. After being politically active in the ANC in the 1950s he was sentenced to 17 years on Robben Island. Vice-president Henry Fazzie was a full-time trade unionist in the 1940s and 1950s. In the early 1960s he was sentenced to 20 years on the Island. Stone Sizani, publicity secretary, is a skilled worker in a chemical factory and previously worked as an organiser for the African Food and Canning Workers Union. Michael Dube, recording secretary, is a factory worker at Nova Board. Only Derek Swartz, general secretary, and the late Mathew Goniwe, regional organizer, were not workers. Swartz is a teacher and Goniwe was a headmaster in Cradock. The Western Cape regional executive has a slightly different profile. The president, who used to be a petrol pump attendant, was imprisoned for his political activities and after his release has remained unemployed. The vice-president started his adult life as a mine worker in the Transvaal. He then worked in Cape Town as a migrant labourer and became an organizer for the South African Congress of Trade Unions during the 1950s. He was later imprisoned and has been unemployed since his release. The second vice-president was a clothing worker but is now unemployed because of police harassment. The remaining nine members of the executive are teachers, lecturers and students – four of whom have working class origins, the rest coming from middle-class backgrounds.
Using a sample of 62 UDF leaders from six regional executives, 33 are currently in economic positions that can be defined as working class, while the rest are teachers/lecturers (16), doctors/nurses/social workers (4), lawyers (5), priests (2), technicians (2) and students (2). Significantly, there is not one businessperson in this sample. This profile reflects a working-class and intellectual/professional leadership.

A Complex ideology
Ideologically, the UDF is equally complex. The major affiliates subscribe to the national democratic programme of the Freedom Charter. This involves dismantling white minority rule and establishing a non-racial unitary democratic state based on the rule of law, constitutional equality, freedom of association and other democratic liberties. The Charter proposes dismantling the white capitalist power-structures through a combination of nationalization, land redistribution and social welfare. The UDF insists the Freedom Charter is anti-capitalist: if implemented it will dislodge the basic foundations of South African capitalism. But this, they acknowledge, does not make it a socialist programme. Presenting the Freedom Charter as anti-capitalist reflects the UDF’s concern to represent the front’s ideology in a way that mirrors its multi-class character.
UDF publications and speakers maintain that the extent to which the South African revolution achieves a socialist order largely depends on the working class establishing its hegemony within the front, gearing the struggle towards socialist goals. Some UDF leaders – particularly those close to the trade union movement – openly describe the anti-apartheid struggle in terms of a class struggle. Socialists in the UDF have emphasized the links between oppression in the communities and exploitation in production. Speaking at the 1987 National Union of Mineworkers congress, UDF acting publicity secretary Murphy Morobe argued that ‘we know how it is for people to go to work in the morning and find their shack demolished when they come back home. To such people it is completely artificial to build a Chinese wall between trade unions and community organizations…Therefore who would deny the patently symbiotic relationship between the rent boycott and struggle for high wages?’
The rhetoric of religious leaders in the UDF is more conservative. They refer to divinely ordained human rights and liberal conceptions of individual liberty. However, for socialists within the UDF, this marriage of proletarian and liberal/religious political ideologies reflects the reality of racial oppression and class exploitation which have made it necessary for all oppressed classes to unite against the common enemy of white rule.

Organization and the Development of Structures
The UDF’s organizational power is reducible to the capacities of its affiliates. But its regional and national structures have a political and ideological influence on political relations in local communities and on national and international perceptions of South Africa. The UDF is a front, not a centrally co-ordinated political party. This makes it impossible to explain the wide range of mass protests since 1983 by initiatives originating from within the front. Nevertheless, it is possible to periodise the general orientation of the UDF and its affiliates into four phases.

Phase one: reactive politics
The first phase of UDF activities began when it was formed to organize nationwide opposition to the new constitution and ‘Koornhof Bills’. The idea behind this campaign was to use the inadequacy of these forms of political representation to demand substantive political rights. The subsequent successful boycotts of the tri-cameral parliament and black local authority elections dealt a severe blow to the state’s reformist initiatives. The success of the boycott tactic established the UDF as a viable extra-parliamentary alternative. The UDF slogan expressing this objective was ‘Apartheid Divides, UDF Unites’, indicating that the front was responding to state initiatives on a terrain determined by the state. So its politics can be described as reactive. At this stage, the UDF’s objective was not to pose alternatives to apartheid or establish organizational structures designed to sustain a long-term struggle. Rather, the front aimed to counter the divisive tactics of state reforms by calling for the maximum unity of the oppressed, urging them to reject apartheid by refusing to vote. The concern to build this consensus was reflected in the UDF’s decision not to adopt the Freedom Charter as a formal statement of principles. It still wanted to draw in ‘non-charterist’ groups like black consciousness and major trade union organizations. The reactive phase of UDF politics ended with the Million Signature Campaign involving a petition against apartheid. The campaign objective was to challenge the apartheid state’s legitimacy at an ideological level. The campaign also provided township activists with a vehicle for solid door-to-door organizing for the first time. In a number of Eastern Cape towns, the organizational infrastructure for strong grassroots community organizations was laid during this period. But in some Transvaal areas activists refused to collect signatures. They believed the campaign was a futile form of protest politics. In the event, the campaign failed to get a million signatures.

Phase two: community struggles
The second phase of UDF politics began after the tri-cameral elections of August 1984. Then struggles initiated by local community organizations began to centre around more basic issues of township life. Transport and rent boycotts, squatter revolts, housing movements, labour strikes, school protests and township stayaways followed. The depth and geographic extent of these actions resulted in an urban uprising which culminated in the declaration of a State of Emergency in July 1985. This shift from national anti-constitutional campaigns to local community struggles was not due to changes in national UDF policy. The shift was the product of local community organizations and activists mobilizing around daily urban issues. Some of these organizations had been active since 1979 while others were only formed during 1984 and 1985. They were able to exploit the contradiction between state attempts to improve urban living conditions and the fiscal bankruptcy and political illegitimacy of black local government. These local organizations rode a wave of anger and protest that transformed political relations in the communities. The change was so fast that UDF local, regional and national leaders could not build organizational structures to keep pace with the levels of mobilization and politicization. The deepening recession and illegitimacy of state reforms were the underlying causes of this urban uprising. The recession – which began in early 1982 – undermined real wage levels. It also limited the state’s capacity to subsidise transport and bread prices, finance housing construction, urban services and educational and health facility upgrading. The illegitimacy of state reforms and in particular new black local authorities’ failure to attract support from the African communities, meant economic grievances were quickly politicized. The resulting struggles included both economic and political demands. There were four decisive moments during this period. Firstly, the Vaal uprising, which began in September 1984. It was sparked by a rent increase announced by the Lekoa Town Council. The uprising led to at least 31 deaths and the beginning of a rent boycott in the region which continues into 1987. Secondly, the nation-wide schools boycott. This began in Cradock in late 1983 when student protested against the dismissal of Matthew Goniwe, a local headmaster and UDF leader who was subsequently assassinated by a death squad in 1985. The boycott spread to Pretoria in early 1984 and to the rest of the country by the end of the year. Student demands included recognition of elected student representative councils, an end to sexual harassment of female students and corporal punishment, release of detained students, and upgrading of educational facilities. Thirdly, the mass November 1984 worker stayaway in the Transvaal marked the beginning of strong working relationships between community organizations, student movements and trade unions. The stayaway, supported by 800 000 workers and 400 000 students, was called to protest against army occupation of the townships and to support students’ educational demands. This was followed by the equally successful but organizationally more complex stayaways in Port Elizabeth-Uitenhage during March 1985. These were called in support of the demand for a reduction in the petrol price and in protest against security force action. These mass actions mobilized unprecedented numbers of people, and displayed new features which signalled a turning point in the recent history of black protest. They mobilized all sectors of the township population including youth and older residents; they involved co-ordinated action between trade unions and political organizations; they were called in support demands that challenged the coercive, urban and educational policies of the apartheid state; and they gave rise to ungovernable areas as state authority collapsed in many townships in the wake of the resignation of black local authority councillors. An internal discussion document circulated by the UDF’s Transvaal education forum in May 1985, recognized that ‘we have been unable to respond effectively to the spontaneous waves of militancy around the country’. The UDF’s 1985 theme, ‘From Protest to Challenge. Mobilization to Organization, was part of the leadership’s attempt to find ways to transform mass mobilization into coherent mass organization. UDF documents and speakers began emphasizing the need to create strong organizational structures at local, regional and national levels, built on more traditional party-type lines. Accountability, direct representation, ideological cohesion, national rather than localised campaigns, and disciplined legal rather than illegal forms of struggle were all stressed. The state’s coercive response to rising levels of mobilization during the last few months of 1984 and early 1985 prevented the UDF leadership from consolidating the front’s structures. After the army occupied townships in late 1984, community struggles became increasingly militarist. Groups of crudely armed youths – sometimes supported by small groups of trained and armed MK cadres – or engaged the security forces in running street battles and hundreds of lives were lost. The militant voluntarism of the youth eclipsed the organizational concerns of grassroots activists, making it even more difficult to establish long-term structures.

Phase three: ungovernability
The first few months of 1985 amounted to urban civil warfare. The state was forced to admit it had lost control of many townships and declared a state of emergency in July 1985. This marked the beginning of the third phase of UDF politics. In many areas organs of civil government had collapsed or been rendered inoperable by mass and/or violent opposition. The responsibility for re-establishing civil government in the townships fell largely on the shoulders of over-extended police and relatively inexperienced military personnel. In the end, the state of emergency failed to restore civil government. The permanent presence of security forces in the townships fuelled rather than quelled resistance and some areas became effectively ungovernable. Militant youth, organized into quasi-military action squads by elements outside UDF affiliates, were able to use crude guerrilla tactics to harass the security forces. But clearly, in the light of the later 1986-87 emergency, the state had not yet committed itself to a complete assault against opposition groups. Activists were caught between the youth’s militarism and security force terror tactics. Whereas youths were criticizing UDF activists for being too moderate in refusing to abandon non-violence, security forces were hunting them down and detaining them.

Phase four: organs of people’s power
This unenviable position forced grassroots activists to set up new durable decentralized organizational structures. These had to be strong enough to withstand the effects of repression while also bringing the youth under control. The result was the establishment of what many activists referred to as ‘alternative organs of people’s power’. The process of creating these structures began in earnest towards the end of 1985, marking the beginning of the fourth – and probably most important – phase of UDF politics. Structures of ‘people’s power’ involve sophisticated forms of organization based on street and area committees. Each street elects a street committee, which in turn elects representatives to an area committee. These structures have developed most effectively in the Eastern Cape and parts of the Transvaal. But they have also spread to some small Western Cape and Natal townships. Street and area committees helped activists bring militant youth under control by dividing youth squads into smaller more disciplined units attached to a street or area committee. Tight local-level organization lessened the damaging effect which detention, disappearance or death of leaders might otherwise have had. Obviously they are not invulnerable. There is evidence that many Eastern Cape street committees collapsed towards the end of 1986 as security forces began detaining their entire membership.

Consumer boycotts
One dimension of the attempt to establish organs of ‘people’s power’ was the Eastern Cape’s consumer boycott movement. Consumer boycotts began as early as March 1985 and proved most successful when called in support of local community grievances. Demands included rent reductions, improved housing, instalment of proper services, deracialisation of trading facilities, withdrawal of troops and the establishment of non-racial municipalities. At one time 15 Eastern Cape towns were affected by boycotts. High levels of unity and solidarity over long periods (in some cases six months) helped consolidate and strengthen community organizations. The success of the Eastern Cape boycotts helped spread the tactic to other regions. But initiatives in other regions came from UDF regional leaders who tried to call consumer boycotts without the necessary organizational infrastructure. They also posed general political rather than specific local demands. Additional problems included profiteering by township businesses and the difficulties involved in organizing the huge Natal and Transvaal townships. Local activists organized the most successful consumer boycotts around basic community grievances. But the regional and national UDF leadership tended to present the objectives as the unification of all sectors of the community around a common set of short and long-term demands; and the need to put sufficient pressure on white middle class shopkeepers to support these demands and in so doing detach their support from the white power bloc. Accordingly, local chambers of commerce, reflecting the anxiety of near-bankrupt retailers, were the first to capitulate. In some cases they actually negotiated the withdrawal of troops from townships and undertook to desegregate central business district facilities. Consumer boycotts worked best where organization was most developed. In small towns like Port Alfred and Cradock a remarkable community consensus existed, with virtually total participation, few reports of intimidation, and united leadership exercising a high degree of control and discipline. In Cradock, for example, youthful activists refrained from trying to kill discredited community councillors at the request of the leadership. In Port Elizabeth, boycott organizers managed to ensure township businesspeople did not raise their prices during the boycotts. Regional differences in the boycott reflected the varying quality of UDF organization and influence during 1985. It was relatively weak in Natal. The often bloody antipathy between the UDF and Inkatha seriously weakened UDF organization in African townships. But where trade unions initiated consumer boycotts in Natal, the campaigns were relatively successful. In the Transvaal, Pretoria and the East Rand consumer boycotts were better organized than in Soweto. But the UDF seemed most entrenched through its various affiliates in the Eastern Cape communities. The consumer boycotts were sustained where street and area committees developed most strongly. The roots of the movement for national liberation which the UDF represents went too deep in certain communities to be eradicated by force. And with this entrenchment in many working-class communities, the UDF is likely to generate an increasingly radical conception of a liberated society. The concept of ‘people’s power’, for example, is more than a mobilizing slogan. The new forms of organization developed during the township revolt are rudimentary organs of self-government. The collapse of state authority and the legitimacy of the UDF-affiliated community groups enabled these organizations to take responsibility for administering a number of township services. They have also on occasion negotiated with state representatives, demanding and winning improvements in the terms and conditions of township living.

The rent boycotts
Evidence that political consciousness in the townships had become increasingly combative emerged during 1986 when the rent boycott spread to 54 townships countrywide. This involved about 300 000 households and cost the state at least R40-million per month. The rent boycotts were a response to both economic and political grievances. Economic grievances involved the level and quality of urban subsistence: declining real wages as inflation increased the costs of basic foodstuffs and transport by 20%; overcrowding with a national average of 12 people per household; massive housing shortages (conservative estimates detail a shortage of 600 000 housing units excluding the ‘independent’ Bantustans); rising rent and service charges (sometimes by 100%); and a growing unemployment rate that has moved beyond the 40% mark. Political grievances were linked to state failure to give blacks substantive political rights in general, and the persistent inadequacy and illegitimacy of the black local authorities in particular. An August 1986 UDF information pamphlet pointed out that rent was not being paid because ‘people are simply unable to afford it’. It also linked the boycott to political demands: ‘The (rent) boycott is…part of an attempt to make apartheid unworkable. The black local authorities are structures designed to make apartheid work – to make people participate in their own domination by a white minority government. The rent boycott weakens these structures and demonstrates to the government that there can be no taxation without representation and that the people will accept nothing less than majority rule’. In most cases a rent boycott began in response to a sudden change in the relationship between the communities and the state: the shooting of 30 people in Mamelodi; the declaration of the 1986 state of emergency in Port Elizabeth; forced removal of people in Uitenhage; and a local official’s failure to keep his promise to meet the community in Parys. Most importantly rent boycotts have united largely working-class communities around a strategy with the potential to sustain itself for a considerable length of time. Unlike consumer boycotts, which aimed at pressurizing the state via middle-class white commercial interests, rent boycotts challenge the state directly. They undermined the fiscal foundations of township administration and have received the full support of both trade union and community organizations. A result of this unity was that trade unions prevented employers from accepting a state security council recommendation that rents be deducted from pay packets through stop orders. The current state of emergency is unlikely to ‘normalise’ local government and ‘restore law and order’ in the townships as long as the rent boycott persists. Nor is it likely the rent boycott will end before the state of emergency has been lifted.

Community struggle and national liberation
As conflict between oppressed communities and the state escalated outside the workplace, local UDF affiliates have become progressively more entrenched in poor working-class communities. During 1986 this led to a radicalization of its ideology and democratization of its structures as working-class elements asserted their right to control their organizations both in and outside the workplaces. This is why the state, after the 1986 State of Emergency was declared in June, decided to launch a full frontal assault to head-off this radicalizing movement.
Two organizational forms have come to complement one another within the broad parameters of the UDF. Firstly, there are processes associated with developing local community organizations. Secondly, these local community movements are part of a national liberation movement with an objective of dismantling the present white minority regime. Just as the formation of COSATU can be seen as the fusion of political and collective bargaining unionism, so the UDF can be understood in terms of the distinct but complementary functions of local community and national liberation movements. But when legal space to organize is regained, the UDF will have to evaluate its structure. The front-type structure has proved workable in most authoritarian societies. But two outstanding features of South Africa’s democratic movement are the strength of the trade unions and the resilience of local-level community organizations. A structure founded more directly on the democratic structures of community and workplace organizations may become appropriate in the future. There will also be the question of developing an organizational infrastructure able to cope with the rapid radicalization and politicization of the masses that inevitably occurs during periods of rebellion. A critical problem faced by political activists since the uprising began in 1984 was how to hold back political mobilization while organizations were built to guide and direct the oppositional movements. Repression and inadequate organizational resources prevented them from resolving this problem. Communities and particularly the youth moved too quickly to take on the full might of the state without the protection, despite the street committee system, of strong national organization.

Inspiring future generations
The UDF has been shaped by pressures and processes largely beyond its control as the dynamics of black resistance have shifted from reactive politics to the establishment of organs of democracy in communities, schools and factories. Despite its severely weakened national organizational structures due to successive repressive assaults, UDF affiliates and leaders remain crucial representatives of South Africa’s black majority. The UDF is not a pressure group, nor a political party. It is essentially what its architects always intended it to be: a front representing a broad spectrum of oppressed class interests. Beneath this formal level of public appearances is a complex network of local organizations. Their campaigns and struggles have generated an increasingly radical conception of the road that should be followed to achieve a liberated society. No matter how far South Africa’s rulers go to crush the UDF and its affiliates, the ideas, aspirations and struggles which have made it what it is will continue to inspire present and future generations to struggle for political and economic justice.