Read in magazine

There was a jubilant and reflective atmosphere at the 40th-anniversary commemoration of the United Democratic Front, with calls for active citizenry and community mobilisation, writes Zukiswa Pikoli.

The 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Democratic Front (UDF) was celebrated at the Johannesburg City Hall on Sunday, 20 August. In the crowd were Struggle stalwarts Sophie de Bruyn, Mavuso Msimang, the Rev Frank Chikane, Trevor Manuel, and former presidents Kgalema Motlanthe and Thabo Mbeki.

The event kicked off with former student leader Lulu Johnson chanting “UDF unites, apartheid divides”, a slogan used by the UDF during its anti-apartheid protests. Johnson said that uniting South Africans was even more urgent today and that “progressive” young people had to reject acts of hooliganism and instead act to protect state resources such as electricity and water.

Former Weekly Mail editor Professor Anton Harber reflected on the role of the media during the anti-apartheid struggle and said that despite the violence and censorship progressive media faced during apartheid, they often found grey areas in the law to find ways of telling the stories of violence, unrest, and the unlawful detention of people fighting apartheid.

Harber said that today the news media faced different challenges such as fragmentation and “struggling to survive”, but at least they had the protection of the Constitution and courts against intimidation and harassment.

“We need to remind ourselves of the core values of great journalism: independence, non-racism, human rights and giving space for dissent and diversity.”

“Each one teach one,” Professor Ihron Rensburg, a former leader of the National Education Crisis Committee (NECC), told the crowd, saying that the struggle for emancipatory education must win against factional political battles.

He said that under the banner of education, the NECC was “deeply entrenched within the struggle for political” freedom during apartheid and that “the uprisings against Bantu Education remain entrenched in memory… Many of us still bear its scars”.

Rensburg said that present-day communities and parent/teacher associations could learn vital insights from the work of the UDF. He acknowledged that there had been progress on some educational fronts such as the national school nutrition programme, no-fee schools, and the national bursary scheme for tertiary education, but that more still needed to be done, such as changing the language policy, eradicating pit toilets and mud schools, as well as improving the safety of learners, particularly those from the LGBTQ+ community.

“Let anger and despair give way to a can-do change attitude, to a caring, transforming and dynamic South Africa,” Rensburg concluded.

People’s power

The keynote address was delivered by President Cyril Ramaphosa. He said the UDF had united different organisations and sectors of society under one banner and had transformed the political landscape of South Africa.

“The UDF used people’s power to break the power of an illegitimate regime, a grassroots movement empowering people with agency and encouraging citizens to play an active role in communities,” Ramaphosa said.

“We remember the many UDF leaders who are no longer with us, who kept our people’s hopes alive: Griffiths Mxenge, Victoria Mxenge, Sister Bernard Ncube, Rev Beyers Naudé, Archie Gumede, Billy Nair, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the many leading lights of the movement.

“[Some] of the [UDF’s] proud legacies are a strong civil society, a culture of community engagement and activism.”

“People power is alive,” Ramaphosa said, pointing out that the Treatment Action Campaign’s constitutional battle for the accessibility of life-saving ARVs, the #FeesMustFall fight for access to higher education, and the #TotalShutdown forcing the government to decisively tackle GBV were all examples of people’s power at work.

Ramaphosa admitted, though, that despite the many gains in the post-apartheid era, “many still feel left behind”. He noted that young people still felt excluded and that by far the most excluded sector was the poor.

“We must be as committed as the UDF was to leaving no one behind,” the President said.

Growing unrest

Rekgotsofetse Chikane from Defend Our Democracy told the gathering: “I don’t wish to belittle the efforts and sacrifices that many of you in this room made throughout your lives to bring us the freedoms that I am allowed to enjoy today…

“What I do wish to tell you today, is that there is revolutionary politics being formed by my generation, a growing unrest with what we have experienced over the last 30 years and what we believe we will continue to experience for the next 30 years if nothing is fundamentally changed. We have a growing belief that something is broken in our country.”

He said if political leaders and those in economic power were to face a court of South Africa’s six million unemployed young people, the court would find them guilty of “creating a lost generation… Your current proposed approach to active citizenry is based on the logic of holding those in power accountable for their actions. But if our political system is fundamentally flawed, then trying to hold those in power accountable becomes a fruitless exercise”.

Chikane said his generation no longer had the time to wait and that it was now apparent that having political power and a majority was ineffective for meaningful change. They were looking beyond formal politics for alternative ways of political engagement.

“In a similar way to the UDF, young South Africans are now beginning to shift protest into challenge. We are seeking to shift mobilisation into organisation… It is not enough to just move back into our communities to recreate structures of old. It is your responsibility to join and assist the young people who are already organising, the communities that are already demanding change. You need to lend them not only your political voice but your social and economic capital as well.”

Closing off the day’s events was the UDF’s adopted declaration, which was read out by Constitution Hill Trust chairperson Valli Moosa: “We declare today that we are not a helpless people. We commit ourselves to be active citizens.

“Many otherwise well-meaning patriots have allowed themselves to be driven into inaction. To do nothing only serves to play into the hands of the wrongdoers. We must refuse to be passive recipients of corruption, incompetence and lack of accountability.”

The declaration called on South Africans:

  • To work for the improvement of education by participating in school governing bodies and alumni organisations;
  • To contribute to fighting crime by participating in community policing forums;
  • To support and promote civic organisations;
  • To participate in ward committees to ensure that councillors are empowered and held accountable;
  • To explore creative ways in which to hold MPs and MPLs accountable to the public every day and not just once every five years;
  • To promote social compacts between government, labour, business and civil society aimed at economic growth, the creation of a more equal society, the creation of jobs and the diversification of ownership patterns;
  • To promote awareness, knowledge and love for human rights contained in the Constitution;
  • To make the protection of the environment and the combating of climate change everyone’s business;
  • To keep the heartbeat of democracy alive by registering to vote and participating in elections; and
  • To speak up every day and not to be complicit by remaining silent.

Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist at Maverick Citizen.

This article first appeared on Daily Maverick and is published with permission.

By Editor