Originally appeared in Inqaba No. 11 (August-October 1983)
by Inqaba correspondents
Press coverage of the launching of the United Democratic Front at Mitchell’s Plain on 20 August has concentrated on the declaration of principles adopted and the main platform speeches. Little was conveyed, however, of the real life of the conference proceedings or the issues that were discussed.
This special report focuses on the topics and demands raised by delegates during the conference discussion.
The UDF conference during the day was attended by some 2,500 delegates and observers. It was opened by Rev. F. Chikane, who described the origins of the UDF. He mentioned previous occasions when people in SA had come together to discuss the way forward, such as the Kliptown Congress of the People which adopted the Freedom Charter.
Following this, the chairman called for discussion, particularly on the issues of forced removals, the housing crisis, the cost of living, the condition of workers, the Ciskei and the Bantustans, the constitutional proposals, and the Koornhof Bills.
A delegate from Natal raised the Group Areas Act, a foundation on which apartheid was built. The constitutional proposals gave this a new dimension. The formation of the UDF was a sign that enough was enough and that “we will not take it anymore.”
A delegate from Huhudi spoke on forced removals. “We are here believing that this conference is a continuation of Kliptown 1955. On this basis we give our support”, he said.
In his area, the Administration Board claimed they had a R6,000 shortfall and could not carry out housing repairs. But at the same time they were spending R1.5 million on Pudomong, the place to which they were to be removed. He asked delegates to focus attention on these removals.
A Western Cape delegate said that he was “happy to see today that through the UDF we are united and brought closer.” He referred to the so-called “new home” which the government was creating for Africans in the Western Cape at Khayelitsha.
“We don’t need a new home: we have one here in the Western Cape. Khayelitsha is a threat and we won’t accept it.” But with the UDF to help, “we shall overcome.”
Another speaker from the Western Cape said that not only the government must be held responsible for the removals:
“We stood and watched what happened in District 6. We coloured and Indians must be ready to stop removals of our black brothers from Langa and Guguletu, even if it means going to jail.”
The next speaker said that if we understood that forced removals were the denial to 72% of the people of their rights, then we understood it all.
Speaking in Afrikaans, a delegate from a housing action committee pointed out that the government is absurdly demanding “economic” (i.e. market-level – Editor) rents on “sub-economic” housing. The “Coloured Management Committees”, he said, were making matters worse.
“We don’t need them, we can speak for ourselves.”
A delegate from Port Elizabeth argued that the housing shortage was greater than in any other country in Africa.
“The matchboxes we live in are now being sold-off at high prices. Some were built in 1948 and earlier. They can’t maintain them, and black people have no money to buy them.”
In Port Elizabeth, he continued, the community councils were taking over the houses from the Department of Community Development, and immediately there were rent increases. But the rents were not matched by the quality of the housing.
“We didn’t move here silently”, said the next speaker, from Mitchell’s Plain. We are further from our work, and transport costs are going up. The rent is too high and there are two or three families in a house to help pay the rent. There is only one clinic for every 20,000 people.”
Now, she added, we have the UDF: “Forward to the struggle, united and strong.”
A Natal delegate stated that the housing question was linked to land. “I can own land but Africans can’t.” The UDF must demand that land ownership be open to all Africans and all the people of SA, he said.
The next speaker explained how the government’s new housing policy was part of the constitutional proposals. By selling off 500,000 homes they hoped to create an African middle class to bring about division within the community.
Big business and the banks, who supported apartheid, had lots of money from the boom years and wanted to put it into housing to make more money. Now the government was taking responsibility for housing only those on R150 per month or less.
Those who could not afford serviced sites, he continued, get nothing, so that they have to become sub-tenants, which leads to over-crowding. If you get a serviced site but have a low income, you will have to build substandard housing, in other words, a dehumanising slum.
The government hoped, he concluded, that a home- and land-owning middle class will defuse militancy in the townships.
A delegate from the Transvaal described how wages were rising more slowly than prices. “The big monopolies”, she said, “always gain by inflation.” Old age pensioners were battling to survive, on payments of R88 every second month for Africans, R88 a month for coloureds and Indians, and R156 a month for whites. “But everyone pays the same for bread,” she said.
“Members of Parliament have just given themselves a pay rise of R600 a month – more than most of us earn.” The President’s Council members got R3,100 a month, while children were grovelling for bread and their parents suffering from alcoholism.
The government, she said, labels protest as “communism”, but in reality it was the conditions threatening our children that were creating militancy. “I thank God for the UDF. The UDF Executive must stand up and demand that pensions be equalised.”
The next speaker stated that the cost of living resulted from the irresponsibility of the government. “Money should be made for men and not men for money.” The wage that a person gets does not take into account clothing, education, and all other needs: it is an unjust wage.
Inflation was continuing while millions were spent on “defence”, and on propaganda (as Muldergate had shown). People needed rents they could afford.
An ounce of gold presently sold for R405. “What did a black miner get out of this?” he asked. The UDF must fight this issue and implement a programme to protest the cost of living in SA.
“We must address ourselves to the wealthy,” he believed. “The flow of profits must benefit those who are poor. Those of us blessed with wealth often pay poorly and should pay a good wage.”
A veteran Natal trade unionist pointed out that “anyone looking at the history of working class involvement in the struggle in this country will know that the working class participated for one thing only: decent wages and decent living conditions for themselves and their families”.
He first became involved in the trade union movement in the 1930s. Despite the difficulties then, and being forced into illegal struggle, workers fought to organise and win better conditions right up to 1955, when Sactu was founded. Then the unions went forward under the Sactu banner, until bannings and killings forced a reassessment.
“Everyone here, every one of you must realise the struggle lies with the working class.” The Wiehahn and Riekert Commissions were trying to create further divisions.
“If we don’t unite now we will lose all our rights. Nothing will fall from heaven.” The regime would try to destroy the trade unions.
“The revolution is beginning now”, he concluded, “under the banner of the UDF. The working class – mine workers, white collar workers, and all workers – must unite under the UDF banner and work for a system where exploitation of man by man is ended and where the means of production will be in the hands of the working class.”
This rousing speech received the warmest reception of any at the conference. It was greeted by a prolonged standing ovation, and five minutes mass singing of Hlanganani Basebenzi.
It was followed by a speech in Xhosa from a woman delegate who stressed how rising costs of living were an attack on “us as women”.
It is difficult to feed our children, who get diseases from lack of food. Instead of providing subsidies, the government was “disturbing people who had no place to stay, oppressing people who are already oppressed. This is a merciless government, that doesn’t care for our demands, but wants to choke us in Khayelitsha.”
“We have no money for fares, no places to stay, we are appealing to the UDF.”
Amid singing, resolutions were passed on removals, housing and the cost of living. Among these was one stating:
“Workers are the producers of wealth in SA; workers have no job security with rising unemployment and the threat of retrenchment; workers are being subjected to increasing intimidation and harassment and being jailed in their attempts to build genuine and democratic trade unions; the President’s Council proposals and Koornhof’s Bills are aimed at destroying unity”; and, in the belief that “workers should fully share in the wealth they produce”, it resolved “to work for a South Africa where oppression and exploitation of workers was ended, to encourage democratic trade unions”, and to “encourage links between democratic trade unions and all patriotic and freedom loving people struggling against the regime”.
At the insistence of a delegation from the Eastern Cape this resolution from the resolutions committee was amended to also “oppose the migrant labour system and fight influx control”.
Another resolution opposed the rises in the cost of living, and the placing of the burden of inflation on the working people and oppressed.
Unfortunately, in the course of the re-drafting of this resolution, a critical passage in it was left out, namely that “only when we have control over the riches of the country will we be able to guarantee cheap and nutritional food”.
Discussion of the founding declaration and working principles of the UDF followed. In his opening remarks the chairman pointed out how the regime’s attempts to sabotage the meeting by preventing delegates from attending had failed. Buses were still arriving!
At this point a delegate, straight from the bus boycott in East London, intervened. Saying that they were not from “Ciskei” but from the “border region”, he explained how in order to come they had had to “escape from the prison Ciskei”.
“Gqweta (Saawu leader – Editor) is in hiding … parents are being shot and killed at stations all over Mdantsane. Students see their parents leave for work and are called to identify them at the morgue. They are walking out of school because of this.”
This struggle was, he concluded, “the struggle of all the assembled democrats here”.
Amendments submitted to the declaration of aims were ruled out of order on technical grounds, and, to the dissatisfaction of many delegates, discussion of this was curtailed.
One of these amendments, called for extending the aims of the UDF from the specific issues of the constitutional proposals and the Koornhof Bills to commit the UDF to “fight for democratic rights in SA until full democratic rights have been achieved”.
But a representative of the drafting committee opposed this, giving as the reason that “the objectives must be in keeping with our capabilities and what we were set up to do”.
Questions were also raised about what was meant in the declaration of principles by including commercial groups among those whom the UDF would seek to mobilise under its umbrella. The platform explained that this meant only those groups which supported UDF principles. A Cape delegate stated that he was a businessman and that “we are oppressed too”.
Another delegate rose to say that while he did not doubt that this Cape comrade was oppressed, “there were many businessmen who are definitely not oppressed”. He would prefer that the term “small trader” should be used.
The platform stated that the acceptance of any group, “commercial or otherwise”, would be at the discretion of the elected officers. On this basis commercial groups were retained in the declaration.
After the adoption of the declaration of principles, the conference elected officers and patrons. The proposal of Nelson Mandela as first patron was greeted with a standing ovation and singing. A spokesman for the Mandela family said that he and his comrades in Pollsmoor Prison were aware of the meeting and gave it their support.
The conference was followed by a launching rally, with 5,000 people packed in the main hall, and up to 7,000 more listening in a marquee and outside. The rally was addressed, among others, by Samson Ndou of Gawu (standing in for Thozamile Gqweta), Helen Joseph, Aubrey Mokoena and Archie Gumede. The concluding address was given by Rev. A. Boesak, and was followed by thirty minutes of singing.
© Transcribed from the original by the Marxist Workers Party (2019).
Interview with an Unemployed Worker from Crossroads
Q. When last did you work?
A. My last work stopped in August 1981. I was working with a construction company building a railway line. I was getting R32 a week. I’ve been searching for a job since then.
I borrow money to go and look for work. No work. I come back to these shelters. I have six children, they want food. The man wants his money back and I have no money to pay him. It’s terrible, man, these whites are killing us.
Q. What did you think of the meeting in Mitchell’s Plain?
A. Yes, the UDF is a very good thing.
Q. What will the UDF do?
A. The UDF is fighting for freedom, not ‘independence’ like Transkei and Ciskei.
Q. How will the UDF bring us freedom?
A. They say Mandela will come out, but I don’t know how.
These whites are very powerful. Last week they came here with guns and dogs and teargas, and broke all the shelters. I was watching, and they said “show your pass”. I said, “It’s there at my place.” They said, “Kom.” I had to pay R10.
I’ve been in prison five times since 1960 for passes. Now it’s R80. How can I get R80? That’s more than two weeks’ wages for my brother, and how can he feed his family for those two weeks?
Q. How will the UDF fight this?
A. I don’t know, but they will.
Q. If all the workers were together, we could defeat the government. Do you think that’s possible?
A. They give the jobs in Cape Town to the coloureds. Now they are going to send all blacks from Nyanga, Langa and Guguletu to Khayelitsha and give the houses to coloureds. They are dividing us. If we all stand together, then the wind cannot blow through.
Interview with a Shopfloor Worker
Q. What did you think of the meeting?
A. It was great. Things are going to change. We live in Guguletu and work at Coca-Cola. They are very clever there. They pick the workers, and take older workers from the Ciskei. If they see that you are militant, then they will kick you out. I am only getting R55 a week. I’ve come from the Ciskei. It’s terrible, there’s nothing there. The Sebes are bastards. I hope the UDF grows and grows.
Interview with Unemployed Worker, Aged 26
Q. When did your work stop?
A. In April. I was with a shelving company getting R59 a week. Before that I was for two months in a food store at R49.50 a week. Then they came and said, “This job is for the coloured chaps”.
Now I have no pass. They came at night and broke our shelters. My pass was lost.
I have no money, my three children are hungry, and I can’t get any work.
Q. Did you go to the UDF meeting?
A. Many of us went. They say it will stop us going to Khayelitsha.
Q. How will it do that?
A. I don’t know.
Q. Do you think the UDF will bring freedom?
A. Yes. It might take time, but I believe it.
Q. When you say freedom, what does it mean to you?
A. It means a job and no pass, and a house for my wife and children.
Interview with a Trade Union Delegate
How can the UDF help the workers’ movement?
Did you hear that speech by the old man with the beard from Natal? The UDF can change things for the workers. If we are in trouble in one factory, then the UDF can get help for the workers from another area. I feel very happy that things will change.
A Trade Union Organiser:
That was a great speech by the trade unionist from Natal. It brought everybody to their feet. I think they should have discussed the aims and put workers’ demands into the aims. But this will come.
A Johannesburg Shop Steward:
That was a great contribution [by the trade unionist from Natal]. But it is not reflected in the resolutions or aims.
Q. Why do you think that is?
A. One of the reasons is that the leadership is not workers. They are talking about ‘the worker’ and ‘the position of the worker in our society’. But even though they are sympathetic, and say that the UDF must be dominated by the working class, it is as if it’s because they feel guilty.
Most of the people here support the workers’ struggle. The UDF will not remain confined to the constitutional proposals. It can’t.
Q. Why do you say workers’ leadership is necessary?
A. I was at the Fosatu winter school, attended by nearly 500. A speaker from the Federation of SA Women asked why Fosatu women didn’t join the Federation. A woman worker got up and answered her: “We are interested in working women”.
One of the FOSATU leaders talked about setting up a workers’ association in Benoni. He was asked: “Why another organisation? There are so many already.” A worker answered: “We need our own organisations.”
Somebody had mentioned the UDF and the National Forum, and another worker said: “Those are organisations of intellectuals.” This was the feeling throughout the hall.
Q. Is that why FOSATU didn’t join the UDF?
A. It is one of the reasons, but they are giving support.
© Transcribed from the original by the Marxist Workers Party (2019).