New Agenda 89: Revisiting UDF 40 years later

No shortcuts, no subtitles, no substitutes

Reflections on the UDF after 40 years

By Allan Aubrey Boesak

Hardly a day passes that I am not stopped on the street by someone with almost always two questions, writes ALLAN BOESAK. First, referring to the dire situations South Africans are facing today: “Is this what we fought for?” And second, “When do we revive the UDF?” If not that, then there is an expressed longing for what the person calls “the spirit of the UDF”

For many obvious, and mostly painful, reasons, 40 years after the UDF was born, and 32 years after the UDF was disbanded by the ANC, it is clear that the power of that idea has not diminished. In the hearts of millions across the nation, the spirit of the UDF still lives, and there is a visceral longing for it to be embraced once again. Nothing, conventional wisdom tells us, is as unstoppable as an idea whose time has come. That is not in dispute, as long as we remember that it is only true if the power of the idea resonates fully not just with a specific moment in history, but with the power of the revolutionary consciousness, the revolutionary expectancy, and the revolutionary readiness of people.

It is a revolutionary awareness that retains, nurtures and re-ignites the fires of resistance that have been burning since the first attempted European invasion of our country in 1510, repelled by the brave fighters of the Cape Khoi, through the devastations of imperialism, colonialism and apartheid, and our people’s determination not just to survive, but to resist. It is an awareness of the continuity of struggle throughout these past 350+ years, a revolution sometimes suppressed, sometimes diverted, but never really de-focused, best described by Iranian scholar Hamid Dabashi as [temporarily] “delayed defiance” (Dabashi, 2012:132). Never subdued, and fed by what Black theologian Dwight Hopkins called “the interpretive cunning of the poor”, it remained an open-ended work of the people; creating new ways to face the ever-changing challenges multi-faceted oppression always brings (Hopkins, 1993:13,14).

Those embers that flared up in 1913 with the women of the Free State; in 1949 with the first ANC protest actions, followed by the Defiance Campaign in 1952; the Freedom Charter in 1955, followed by the Women’s March in 1956. Then came Sharpeville in 1960. It flared up once again with the coming of Black Consciousness, then lighting up the political landscape in the revolution of the children in 1976. It is a fire, Martin Luther King Jr. would say, “that no water can put out.” Those are the embers, never doused, carefully nurtured by one generation after another that would smoulder, erupting into the burning flame that became the United Democratic Front. That interpretive cunning of the oppressed would be on full display with P.W. Botha’s Great Constitutional Hoax of 1983. Political figures like A.P. Treurnicht and Jaap Marais saw this as a dangerous mistake, a bridge too far, a slippery slope that would plunge white South Africa into a morass of Black political domination and the irretrievable loss of whiteness as manifestation of power, control, privilege and exclusivism. For the white, Western world, this was a huge step forward.

For P.W. Botha and most of white South Africa, though, it was much more than that. This was a moment of reprieve, if not redemption, for apartheid at a time of great uncertainty and growing international pressure. This was the plan that would prove to the world what Botha’s predecessors, from D.F. Malan to J.D Vorster, tried to unsuccessfully articulate to the world: that apartheid was not oppression and exploitation, rather it was a policy that sought justice for everyone in their proper place and station; Blacks in their Bantustans, “ruled by their own” with promises of “independence”, buttressed by the presence of “embassies” from South Africa, right across the street.

“Coloureds,” Indians and whites, in politically functioning structures, not in the same chamber but in the same complex; separate, so as to serve the needs of “their own people” best, but “together” in serving the country of which they, at least, were allowed to be citizens, in so doing serving the best interests of white, apartheid South Africa. Together, but not equal, of course. Each provided with a budget doled out and controlled by whites, as is proper. They would have the taste of severely diluted power and the optics of pretend privilege, but what does it matter if that is what they are prepared to accept? They would be well rewarded. After all, isn’t that a true and tested method since we first saw this land – killed off their real leaders, took those who would bend the knee and made them “chiefs”, gave them trinkets and barrels of brandy, help them make a X on a piece of paper, and the land was ours?

That is an arrangement the white, Western world would understand. Also, it must have been the hope, if the regime could offer such a profitable deal to “coloured” and Indian people, it would have considerable impact on those communities. They would grab the opportunity of inclusion in South Africa’s white democracy, with newly created opportunities for advancement for so many in ways they could not have imagined before. As well, this might undermine the still sporadic spasms of unrest since 1976, strengthen the “Winning Hearts and Minds” policy the government was beginning to implement, changing apartheid’s political fortunes in those communities, especially with the biased weight of the white-controlled media.

What the children with their wild, revolutionary destructiveness could not do, this reasonable government was offering the adults with a political magnanimity not seen before in South Africa.

This would be P.W. Botha’s lasting legacy. This, and not 1985, was his true Rubicon. This was proof that apartheid could really be “reformed”. This is “extended” and “incremental” democracy at work. This was an apartheid with which the world could “constructively engage.” No “crimes against humanity” here! If only the “coloureds” and the Indians would agree. And they did. Almost. When the chosen leaders of the co-opted “Coloured” and Indian political class took that fateful decision in Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Eshowe, Natal to participate in the tricameral parliament on January 4, 1983, apartheid rejoiced.

It was to be short lived, however. A day or so later, in an interview with the Cape Times, I talked about this calamitous decision by people who did not represent the communities, did not have our trust, and had no right to speak for us, how disastrous it would for the Black communities as a whole and that it called for massive resistance from those communities. I spoke of the need for a united front, gathered from all communities, to resist, and cancel the government’s plans.

On January 18, 1983, at a rally organised by the Transvaal Indian Congress in Johannesburg, I was the featured speaker. Speaking of the crisis apartheid has caused for itself, I insisted that that crisis should not be made our crisis but turned into an historic opportunity. Arguing for “the politics of refusal”, I made the call for the formation of the UDF. The response to that call in the hall that day reverberated with intensifying enthusiasm across the country. On August 20th, now 40 years ago, at Rockland Civic Centre in Mitchell’s Plain, the UDF, a true people’s movement, was born. The resounding success of the boycott campaign robbed the tricameral parliament of all legitimacy and smashed whatever dreams the National Party may have had of redeeming apartheid.


For all the hype, propagandistic hoopla and political pressures, the people understood perfectly what was happening. That is why, though I was initially taken by surprise at the response across the country as I travelled the country between the call and the launch, I understood more and more of that inherited spirit, that awareness of the continuity of struggle.

The people were ready for that call in ways that went back beyond the recent revolutionary ferment brought on by Soweto and the revolution of the children. There was a keen sense of the arrival of a turning point in history, and of the call for that generation not only to observe that turning point, but to in fact be that turning point. Understanding the lessons learnt since 1976, there was a sober assessment of the power of the apartheid regime, and of the ways in which that power would be asserted to protect and enhance apartheid, but there was also an acute awareness and embrace of the power of the people, so splendidly displayed during and after 1976.

But I had completed my studies in the Netherlands with a dissertation on Black Theology, Black Consciousness and Black Power, and I wanted our people to understand that the power we were talking about and were claiming was fundamentally different from the power exercised by a criminal, racist, oppressive regime. I talked about power in the way that M.M. Thomas of India taught us. He spoke of the revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s in the Third World as “the demand of the people for power as the bearer of dignity and for significant and responsible participation in society and social history.” That is, Thomas believed, what gave the people “a new sense of dignity and historical mission” (Thomas, 1951:19).

That was what we were after, and that was what the country would see in the decade ahead. It was a dynamic completely alien to the ideological imagination of the apartheid state, and perhaps one of the reasons that made it so hard for them to deal with us. Their brutal power, steeped in white supremacy and capitalist greed, could only conceive violence. The dynamic that would drive the politics of the UDF: power not for domination, but for the fearless assertion and determined preservation of the dignity of the people so that their agency for the shaping of their own history would be awakened.

It was a time for making choices. Those choices were of great political significance, but were simultaneously morally vital. What was, for us, the meaning of justice or of freedom?

Does one always look out for one’s own interest in politics, and what were then the moral consequences of those choices? For the “Coloured” and Indian communities these were vital issues. By its actions the apartheid regime had forced us to look differently, or at least anew, at ourselves and the worth of our  political convictions as well as our faith.

For those from the Black Consciousness generation, like myself, it would be a time of testing. In 1970, Steve Biko had asked whether we, young people then, would prove ourselves “worthy” of leadership. That time had now come. We now had to question with new intensity our own humanity in the light of the humanity of others, to reformulate our vision for ourselves, our country and all its people. If we caved, what would become of Black Consciousness’ vision for South Africa: an inclusive, non-racial, responsible, responsive and especially egalitarian society?

When I made the call, I did not, unlike the ANC, have in mind the continuation of underground activities. I had in mind an above-ground, open, non-racial movement that would mobilise people on the fundamentals former ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli taught us – nonviolent militancy. We believed that the ideals we held up and fought for – a non-racial, peaceful, non-sexist, inclusive, egalitarian democracy – should already be embedded in the methods of our struggle. And to an astonishing extent, we succeeded.

Years later, I would discover how aptly W.E.B DuBois’ words would describe the politics we strove after in the UDF. He talked about “the politics of decency, integrity, honesty, courage, and virtue”, all in the face of the politics of lawlessness, unaccountability, corruption, betrayal, brutality and cowardice (DuBois, 1957:157).

In 2009, I wrote that the ANC was not only in an unseemly hurry to disband the UDF, it also, through what I call deliberate processes of unremembering, tried endlessly to completely erase the UDF from South Africa’s history. Where it failed to erase, it distorted, trivialised, belittled and marginalised. “Nevertheless,” I wrote then, “that day in 1983, when the UDF was launched, remains in the hearts and minds of millions. And more importantly, all politics afterwards would be measured by what the UDF had achieved, for the country and within us” (Boesak, 2009:117).


And that is why today so many are asking the questions I started with. I have learned during the years of my participation in our struggle for freedom, from 1976, and especially through my involvement in the work of the United Democratic Front, and have come to believe increasingly over the last 30 years of South Africa’s democratic experiment, as a pastor, preacher, theologian and activist. Among those is this: there are no shortcuts to liberation and justice. There are no substitutes for the struggle for freedom, for equity and dignity, just as there is no substitute for sacrifice. A true revolution needs no subtitles. “The struggle,” said Albert Luthuli, “would be for freedom, justice, and human dignity and there could be no substitute: we are bent on liberation (Luthuli, 2006:147).

The myriad dilemmas and challenges South Africans are facing today, I will posit here, are all derived from one, fundamental dilemma: our desire for shortcuts, subtitles and substitutes. By 1985, it became clear that the children’s revolution, started in 1976, was not going to be yet another proverbial flash-in-the- pan. It was proving to be a sustained, unrelenting onslaught on apartheid and all its structures and systems, all its suppositions and fundamentals, shaking its foundations to the core.

The first state of emergency was the sign that the white-supremacist regime understood this. That is why, at the same time that they were killing our children in the streets by the hundreds, they initiated those secret talks with the African National Congress in exile, making those elite deals for the benefit of the old, established white elites, and the new, incoming, Black elites. But those secret deals are not revolution – that’s a short cut.

That is why, as I argue in Selfless Revolutionaries (Boesak, 2021: Ch 8), we have an incomplete revolution. Shortcuts not only need subterfuge. They need subtitles. There is much proud talk of our “National Democratic Revolution”, but it needs subtitles, such as “the politics of realism”, “negotiated settlement”, and the even more deceitful “rapid deracialization of wealth and capital.” In truth, we know we are sitting with a stolen revolution, supplanted by secret elite deals, “balance of power” agreements and “sunset clauses.” Hence the need for what I call “the politics of manufactured contentment” so deftly employed by the establishment since 1994 (Boesak, 2021: Introduction). But revolution needs no subtitles, and it has no substitute.

The same is true of our failed reconciliation process. What we needed, and still need after 350 years of the devastations of imperialism, colonialism and apartheid, is reconciliation that is real, radical and revolutionary, as I wrote in 2012, in a book titled Radical Reconciliation (Boesak and De Young, 2012).

We needed a process that would leave no single lie regarding our past and our present, unchallenged. But that was too costly for South Africa. Because we looked for short cuts, we opted for cheap reconciliation. We rushed to forgiveness, but we skipped the foundational elements of true, sustainable and durable reconciliation, which produce justice:remorse, repentance, repair, reparation and restoration.

Because we did not seek reconciliation as distributive justice, the restoration of the land, of history and of the dignity of our people, reparations for what was stolen from us, the decolonisation of our politics, the law and the courts, we sought refuge in subtitles and substitutes. “The rainbow nation” is not real. It serves as subtitle for a nation not at peace with itself.

Forgiveness is not real, if it becomes a subtitle for forgetfulness. If the economy is run by a handful of white men, and when the vast majority of the land is still in white hands, serfdom is the substitute for freedom.

Just how far have we sunk when the president hides millions of dollars in his mattresses, while the colonialist media tell us to look the other way, the Reserve Bank, SARS, and the NPA have lost their collective tongue, and those in Parliament who demand accountability are ignored, outvoted, shouted down and suspended? There is no substitute for dignity. Using the flag of anti-corruption and the law to cover up the corruption of cronies, simultaneously getting rid of political opponents, like they did with Lula da Silva in Brazil, is the epitome of corruption. It is the most vicious assault on the democracy we are supposed to protect. But we are expected to remain silent. There is no substitute for revolution.

There was a time in South Africa when faith communities and educational institutions, universities and high schools, lecturers and students, workers and the unemployed, people from all walks of life, across the artificial barriers of skin colour, race, class, culture, religion, and language. We were the UDF. We saw the world of apartheid through the eyes of those who suffered, and we rose up in resistance.

Our protest was relentless. We faced teargas, and dogs, and guns. We were imprisoned, beaten and tortured. We lived lives of self-sacrifice. We were purposeful. We felt the pain of our people, and we shared their dreams of freedom. Through their eyes, we saw visions of justice and equity. We were not content with an unjust world; we knew we were not a people meant for oppression, and tyranny, and destruction.

But that was before the days of euphoria and illusion. Before we told ourselves that a negotiated settlement signified the coming of the reign of God. Before we decided that honouring our people’s sacrifices was too much of a hindrance to the profitable deals made with the old white, apartheid, capitalist class. Before we were so mesmerized by the wizardry of Mammon and the intoxications of power that we forgot the subversive memories of struggle. That was before we began to use parliamentary privilege to disguise our crimes, before we left the field of governance to hide ourselves in the draughty caves of shortcuts, subtitles and substitutes.

It is no wonder that we ended up where we are today, as a country, and as a people. We are a people severely diminished by politics without principles, leadership without vision, policies without commitment, and hence by failure after failure. We are drowning in corruption, and lies, and cover-ups. We are plagued by deceit and confounded by subterfuge. Our disastrous choices in economic policies have deepened the generational impoverishment of our people while creating new millionaires every second week it seems, making us the most unequal society in the world today.

Steve Biko’s fear, expressed back in 1970, that if we only strive to get a black face in high office, and nothing fundamentally changes, especially our economic system, South Africa would be exactly “like yesterday.” That is the return of unfreedom, the return of submission to oppression and authoritarianism, which is enslavement. It is, by the same token, the ongoing impoverishment of the vast majority of our people, the ongoing colonization of our land, to say nothing of the re- colonisation of our mind. That is why the spirit of the UDF has remained so resilient, and so powerfully relevant. The renewed struggle for freedom, justice and dignity is on, and the people know it.

If, in these past 30 years, the ANC had worked half as hard to honour the sacrifices of our people as they did to kill off the UDF, and please the whims and demands of the white, apartheid, capitalist classes, South Africa would have been a vastly different country.

Where do we go from here? With our country wracked by revived racism, re-invited colonialism, re-embraced tribalisms of every sort, and re-invented ethnic nationalisms on the rampage, all of which I warned against in 1983, at the launch, and in 2008, at the 25th anniversary of the UDF.

Our people have lost trust in just about every democratic institution we have. Even as we speak, Parliament is crippled by obfuscation and criminal abuse of power, unable to call the President to account – stuffed mattresses or not. What does it even mean when we see them with their hands over their hearts, swearing loyalty to the Constitution? The assembly of the people, it seems, is constantly being turned into the assembly of the well-paid useless, going through the motions as if the people were a bunch of nitwits who cannot see through all this. One should be grateful that this time, it looks like the opposition parties refused to bow to this mimicry of democracy.

How did we end up here? African Church father Augustine spoke a truth in the 5th century that I used against the apartheid regime: “A government that does not know justice is nothing more than a gang of robbers”. It is as relevant in 2023 as it was in 1985. We are ruled by a gang of robbers who have robbed us of the nobility of our struggle, of the hopes of our elders, the aspirations of our youth, and the dreams of our children. In painful lesson after painful lesson, we have learnt that claiming democracy is not the same as celebrating liberation. “Post-apartheid economic inequality has been driven by increasing gains at the top,” experts say, but we should not be surprised. That is the nature of the neo-liberal capitalist beast.

Economist Gőran Therborn has studied the work of the National Planning Commission and concludes that the Commission’s planning blithely accepts “that in 2030 South Africa should continue to be the world’s most unequal country”. It means that government policies are designed to maintain the chasm between rich and poor, to throw up the barricades that protect the wealthy and keep the poor outside the walls of coddled privilege (Therborn, 2018:35-52).

If neo-liberal capitalism, neo- colonialism and neo-imperialism are the subtitles to South Africa’s so-called freedom, and today’s neo-apartheid leaders are the substitute for the old apartheid leaders, it means that we have no future. That is not what previous generations fought and died for, and that is not what this generation deserves.


One of the things that strikes me as I speak more and more with our people across the country, especially young people, is the depths of anger, disillusionment and hopelessness. “We are,” one young man put it, “constantly tossed between utter despair and boiling anger.”

At this point the tomorrow that millions have struggled, sacrificed and died for is hardly different from the yesterday we rose up against. And it is for all these reasons that I speak of an incomplete revolution. Our revolution was hijacked, stolen and domesticated beyond recognition, subtitled with the equally denuded concepts of Ubuntu, reconciliation and forgiveness, an orphan child standing alone under a make-believe rainbow with already fading colours. There is a reckoning coming.

Increasingly, our understanding is being shaped by what Chief Albert Luthuli called “nonviolent militancy”, and what Martin Luther King Jr. called “a revolution of values”: decency, integrity, honesty, courage, virtue, self-sacrificial love for one’s people. For such “selfless revolutionaries” as Biko called them, people would be over profits, justice would be inclusive and compassionate, dignity would be irreplaceable. For them, martyrdom would not be sought, but sacrifices, if called for, would be gladly made, for we had heard Albert Luthuli: “The road to freedom is via the Cross.” There would be no shortcuts, no subtitles, no substitutes. The revolution led by the UDF was radical because it was also a revolution of values. It kept us keenly aware of the oppression of our people, but did not embitter us so that we created space even for comrades from the oppressor class to join the struggle for freedom. We took Paulo Freire seriously when he reminded us of the “historic obligation of the oppressed: to free the oppressed as well as the oppressor.” So we built the United Democratic Front that crossed all barriers of race, class, colour, culture and religion. It became the largest, nonviolent, militant, non-racial movement in the history of our struggle.

What South Africa is going through at the moment is beyond disheartening. Especially now that more and more we are beginning to realise that the Zondo Commission has lifted just a carefully selected corner of the veil on the kind of corruption the depths of which we could not begin to imagine. It is disheartening because if the past is anything to go by, there will be a selectivity in reckoning, accountability and justice that pours even more scandal on our justice system. It is also ripping into our soul in ways we were never prepared for.

As a company, Bosasa may have changed its name, but the very word has now indelibly and unforgettably entered the lexicon of global scandals. Bosasa is the symbol of what happens when an organisation forgets that nobility may be inherited, but it can be lost. That trustworthiness has to be earned, and sacrifice has to be respected. That arrogance and hubris are never good substitutes for the integrity, decency and honesty that calls forth the love of the people. Bosasa is the weeds that grow on the grave of the nobility of our struggle.


I should perhaps pause here to make clear that I do not mean an “incomplete revolution” to be the opposite of a “perfect” revolution. Brazilian liberation theologian Rubem Alves is correct when he states, “What drives us is not the belief in the possibility of a perfect society, but rather the belief in the non-necessity of this imperfect order” (Alves in Bonino 1983:90). It is the absolute dissatisfaction with our situation perpetually being “almost as of yesterday.” It is a dissatisfaction fuelled by righteous anger because we know that it is the incompleteness in which the powerful and privileged prosper, but the poor and the oppressed, the defenceless and the vulnerable, the weak and the powerless are cast aside and left behind.

Our ongoing revolution is the continual striving toward wholeness, the openness to learning and unlearning, towards a more whole becoming, towards, as Biko promised, gifting South Africa a “human face.”

South Africa is the most unequal society on earth. The rich/poor gap is now wider than in the days of apartheid. That means the future of our country, all our people, especially our youth, are captured by yesterday. For them there might be no tomorrow. Young South Africans know this and their judgement is relentless: “From this perspective,” says Siya Khumalo, “the new South Africa is old South Africa 2.0 (2018), or as Conrad Koch describes the New South Africa’s economy, ‘apartheid without the guilt’” (Khumalo,2018:216). That is concisely, and precisely put.

So, is there still a tomorrow to talk about, to believe in? I firmly believe so. Despite the pain of disappointments, disillusionments, bewilderments and betrayals, the revolution of values retains its grip. It means having the imagination and creativity to work for the rebirth of the future, a rebirth of the dreams, ideals and hopes others have abandoned or sold out, but too many in this country had believed in, fought for, sacrificed for, given their lives for. It means stubbornly clinging to, and working for, the possibility of making that hopeful, just and peaceable tomorrow a reality. And that is perhaps the cardinal reason why a new people’s movement like the UDF is so necessary.

In these renewed efforts, we must learn from the past 30 years. We must not make the imperfect our yardstick, nor the mediocre our consolation. We must not measure our progress by the comfort of the rich, but by the character of the justice we do to the poor and vulnerable. Judgement on our walk to our God- ordained destiny must not be taken from the privileged or the pampered circles of the powerful, but from the powerless, those the Bible calls “the least of these.” The authority with which we rule in this country must not be derived from the approval of the mighty and the boastful, but must rest upon the hopes of the poor, the ones of unimpressive proportions, in whom the living God has invested the hope for life, and where our hope for life is to be found.

Hope, Church Father Augustine has said, is a mother with two beautiful daughters. One she has named Anger, the other Courage. The anger at what is wrong in the world, and the courage to rise up and do something about it. That hope is not the blind, sentimentalised, romanticised optimism that sees not just a silver lining but a rainbow in the very dark clouds we keep on gathering above ourselves. That hope is power as the bearer of the dignity of the people. It is embodied solidarity, self-sacrificial love, a revolutionary act. There is no short cut; it needs no subtitles; there is no substitute.


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In January 1983, Dr Boesak issued a call for a united front in the fight against apartheid, with the focus at that time on former president P.W. Botha’s hateful tricameral parliament. As one of its founder members, Dr Boesak was present at the launch of the United Democratic Front in Mitchell’s Plain in August that year. He served as one of its patrons until 1991 when the umbrella body disbanded. A former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches; Dr Boesak has most recently served as theologian-in-residence at the International Institute for the Study of Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice; Extraordinary Professor of Public Theology at Stellenbosch University; and Honorary Professor of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is currently professor of Black Liberation Theology and Ethics at the University of Pretoria.

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