Remembering the launch of the UDF on 20 August 1983
Today is 20 August and it is appropriate that we remember (re-member?) the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) at Rocklands Civic Centre in Mitchells Plain.
In many ways, the venue was well-chosen as many of the people who were removed from District Six and other “white” areas now lived in Mitchell’s Plain, with the pain of the removals still fresh in their memory. It is to these same people that collaborators of the apartheid state would return to ask them to vote for a tri-cameral parliament in 1984, and the majority of the people of Mitchells Plain said a clear and resounding No when only 4% went to vote for the tricameral parliament.
No-one will be able to forget the words spoken by Dr Allan Boesak that August night: “We want ALL of our rights, we want them HERE and we want them NOW!” With those words ringing in our ears, we committed ourselves to bring the system of apartheid to an end. We knew that it could not be reformed (a la PW Botha and his tricameral system), but that it had to be eradicated altogether. For that to happen, we had to first overload the system with its army, its intelligence forces, its economy, its theologians, etc. All we had was faith in the face of these Goliaths, but we knew that “We shall overcome” and we proclaimed that boldly.
Church leaders and theologians were at the forefront of the launch of the UDF. Anyone who wish to deny this are simply being dishonest and ahistorical. On that day of the launch, when someone suggested that someone might have tried to hijack the sound system, Rev Frank Chikane proclaimed: “You cannot hijack the people!”. We believed (and still believe) in the Biblical text of Luke 4 that said: “He has sent me to give the good news to the poor, tell prisoners that they are prisoners no more, tell blind people that they can see, and set the downtrodden free.” This was our mandate and we were determined to live this mandate.
Bishop Desmond Tutu and Dr Beyers Naude were asked to be patrons of the UDF. We had a vision and we had organisations of the people organising on the ground, giving people hope in the most repressive era of the apartheid regime.
We were inspired by some voices from outside: from the writings, sermons and speeches of Martin Luther King to Paulo Freire, and even by external ANC voices who gave us analysis and other tools to understand what was happening. It was true that you could understand the situation better from the outside than from the inside. We knew that the struggle against apartheid was being waged on different levels, and we had chosen the internal non-violent movement through which to express our commitment against apartheid and for democracy.
Many people were imprisoned and died in the run-up to the launch of the UDF and also in the seven years before the ANC, PAC and other parties were unbanned and the prisoners were freed.
In September 1985 the Kairos document was launched. In December 1985 COSATU was launched. In 1986 Desmond Tutu was elected as Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town. The Standing for the truth campaign and several other campaigns were launched. People were willing to go to prison and to die to see the end of apartheid. This and other activities (such as international sanctions) all contributed to overloading the apartheid system and by February 1990, the apartheid state could no longer maintain the apartheid system and decided to release the prisoners, unban the organisations and let the exiles return. By April 1994 we were able to have our first democratic elections.
Now what? Nostalgia or new vision?
Remembering the UDF cannot simply be about nostalgia.
It is interesting that in the week leading up to the 20th of August 2012, a National Development Plan was launched in Parliament. Perhaps it should also be launched at a stadium with 80 000 people present, and then “district launches” and even municipal launches can be held to give the message that this programme belongs to all the people of South Africa and not just to the politicians. Politicians should be careful not to make this into a party political programme but ensure full participation by as many people as possible.
We might want to critique aspects of the NDP (since we did not sufficiently critique the targets of GEAR), but the broad message that all South Africans need to unite to tackle the challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality, and that government and citizens need to work on this together, cannot be ignored and should be supported.
In the same way that organisations were formed to be part of the UDF, so new organisations focussing on aspects of our life together such as housing, water, safety and security, etc. can be formed or strengthened to ensure that government is held accountable by citizens.
We definitely need a united front against poverty, unemployment and inequality. Citizens should not wait on government, but should drive the process. Government must create the right environment for citizens to act and not put a leash on the creativity of citizens. For example, earlier in 2012 some South African citizens united to ensure that Richard Mdluli’s suspension cannot be lifted through internal police processes only, and won the case in court despite the police opposing it.
So even though Minister Manuel spoke about government and the executive leading the process, citizens should not wait on this but rather take the lead. This requires a new consciousness amongst all citizens of South Africa.
Faith leaders and theologians can once again provide spiritual and moral and also material support to this new phase of our life together. We expressed some of this in our Kairos SA letter to the ANC and therefore we should support it. We can demand more detail and ask that specific targets be set, for example that all shacks be eradicated by 2020. We can encourage citizens to become organised and not to wait on government. We can assist with analysis, and when government wants to forge ahead with certain projects (eg nuclear stations) we can organise for more renewable energy projects. When government does not deliver textbooks, we can support Section 27 and other organisations to hold government to account. When government processes are corrupted and power is abused, we can expose it.
There is much that we can do and are doing, and the struggle for ALL our rights, wanting those rights HERE and NOW must continue. The people’s struggles cannot and should not be allowed to be hijacked!
Written by Rev Edwin Arrison, 20 August 2012