United Democratic Front (South Africa)

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Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. The United Democratic Front (UDF) was one of the most important anti-apartheid organisations of the 1980s. The non-racial coalition of about 400 civic, church, students', workers' and other organisations (national, regional and local) was formed in 1983, initially to fight the new Tricameral Parliament (the parliament was put in place in 1984 with the election of P. W. Botha of the National Party). Its slogan, "UDF Unites, Apartheid Divides" reflects the Front's broad support (about 3 million members).


The plans for a new political organisation were introduced by Rev. Allan Boesak at a conference of the Transvaal Anti-SAIC Committee (TASC) on 23 January 1983.[1] The part of his speech calling for a "united front" of "churches, civic associations, trade unions, student organizations, and sports bodies" was unplanned, but well received. Trade unions were very important in the UDF. They began to emerge in the 1980s and took on the role of the "muscle" of the UDF. UDF pursued a strategy known as "ungovernability": leadership of these organizations declared a strategy to make lands ungovernable. The TASC appointed a sub-committee to investigate the possibility of such a front. After much debate, it was decided that the new organization would be a coalition of non-racist anti-apartheid organisations.

The launch of the UDF

The UDF then formed regional committees, which established relationships with local organizations. The Natal UDF was launched first, in May, and then the Transvaal region (in June) and the Cape Province (July). Representatives of the regions formed the Interim National Committee, which also included outside activists.

At the end of July, the committee held a two-day meeting where they discussed a national launch date. Although most delegates wanted time to organise the regions before the national launch, they decided the best date was 20 August, the day the government planned to introduce the Tricameral Constitution. This Constitution was touted as reform, but in practice granted meaningless representation to Indians and Coloureds and left the Black majority in the same position. The UDF's symbols — logo and slogan — were also selected at the meeting. Both the logo and slogan portray the widespread support the UDF hoped to achieve by incorporating a wide range of South Africans of all races. Some member organisations adapted the "UDF Unites, Apartheid Divides" slogan; for example, the Soweto Civic Association used "Soweto Civic Association Unites — Piet Koornhof Divides".

On 20 August 1983 the UDF was launched in the Rocklands community hall, Mitchell's Plain, near Cape Town. After a conference of delegates from 565 organisations (400 were already members), a public rally was held, attended by about 10,000 people. Frank Chikane, the first major speaker, called the day "a turning point in the struggle for freedom".

Organisational structure

The UDF was formed of organisations from throughout South Africa, although support was always concentrated in the Cape, Natal, and the Witwatersrand area. It soon attracted a massive following and had the support of around 3,000,000 members by 1985. Among its prominent leaders were Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Allan Boesak and several 1950s activists, including Albertina Sisulu, Oscar Mpetha and Helen Joseph. The UDF and its affiliates promoted rent boycotts, school protests, worker stay-away and a boycott of the tricameral system. Smaller organisations affiliated to the UDF targeted more specific targets for their protests; the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), for example, was set up in opposition to the compulsory military conscription of white males into the South African Defence Force. The Front and its members were largely responsible for the intensification and sustenance of resistance in the period from 1984 to 1986. At its peak, in 1987, it had some 700 affiliates. The most important of these were student/youth organisations, trade unions, "civics" and women's organisations and the church groups where the UDF had its roots.

Relationship with the ANC

Early in its life, the UDF adopted the Freedom Charter, a statement of the aims for a free South Africa and basis for a democratic constitution. The strong relationship between the African National Congress (ANC) and the UDF was based on this shared mission statement. Throughout its existence, the UDF demanded the release of imprisoned ANC leaders, as well as other political prisoners. However, the UDF was never formally attached to the ANC, and did not participate in the armed struggle.

Relationship with the Black Consciousness Movement

The Black Consciousness Movement disagreed with the UDF on the issue of whether whites should be welcomed into the struggle against apartheid. The Black Consciousness movement was based on the principle that the liberation struggle should be led by black people, whereas the UDF welcomed anyone who shared their goals and was willing to commit to them in struggle.

Mass Democratic Movement (MDM)

In 1989, the UDF and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) began cooperating more closely in a loose alliance called the Mass Democratic Movement, following restrictions on the UDF and COSATU by the apartheid government. The apartheid government described the MDM as a UDF/Cosatu/SACP alliance, although this was disputed by the MDM at the time.[1][2][3]. The loose nature of the MDM made it difficult for the apartheid government to ban.[4]

Treason Trials

Several UDF members were among the accused in two of South Africa's most highly publicised trials. Accused (with the banned ANC and South African Communist Party [SACP]) of plotting to overthrow the government, the sixteen accused, including Albertina Sisulu, were acquitted in the first of these trials. In the Delmas Treason Trial (1985–1988), however, the nineteen were convicted, but these convictions were later set aside.

Prominent Members

External links

Online Archives

Open Access Academic Articles


  1. The UDF at 30: An organisation that shook Apartheid's foundation, by J. Brooks Spector, The Daily Maverick, 22 August 2013