People’s Power in 1980s South Africa: Refusing a Permanent State of Emergency



In South Africa, successive states of emergency were declared in the 1980s by the settler colonial apartheid regime to crush the uprisings initiated in the late 1970s. Tshepo Madlingozi recounts this era through the particular history of the United Democratic Front formed in 1983.

In the mid-1980s, a desperate colonial regime in so-called “South Africa” declared a State of Emergency to squash unprecedented nationwide uprisings. These revolts were the biggest and most sustained challenge that colonized people ever mounted against colonialism and apartheid. Indeed, the 1980s, in my opinion, was the most revolutionary period in the history of 20th century anti-colonial politics in South Africa. These uprisings were revolutionary in the sense that Indigenous people did not seek to transform the colonial polity so that they could be included in it. Politics of human rights, transformation and inclusion or assimilation were replaced with what participants called politics of “ungovernability” and “people’s power.” Ungovernability and people’s power discourse and praxes were understood as means towards the deconstruction of colonial-apartheid and the construction of a new polity based on Ubuntu/humanness, participatory democracy and social justice. Understood in this way, this neglected period of the South African anti-colonial struggle was a period of refusal of the state of permanent emergency that settler colonization sentenced Indigenous people in South Africa. This is the key proposal of this text. I propose that the series of states of emergency declared by the colonial regime in the mid-1980s — the first time such laws have been officially declared in the history of South Africa — should be understood from this dialectic of permanent settler futurity and permanent Native ruination or emergency in this country without a name. 

Indeed, from the late 1650s, when Europeans decided to institute settler colonization in the territory that later became South Africa, Indigenous people have been living in a state of permanent emergency and disaster caused by the fact that they (Africans) were displaced from their home; dispossessed of their land; dehumanized and forced to become tools of western modernity and racial capitalism; officially and unofficially enslaved; their kingdoms and sovereignty subjugated; their cultures, religions, epistemologies and lifeworlds degraded, subjugated and cannibalized; and their basic political and civil rights denied. Colonized people did not just accept colonialism and colonisation. For 100 years (1779-1878) they mounted military resistance against British conquest. In the first half of the 20th century, conquered people continued their resistance mostly via formal political parties. However, between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, when the two major anti-apartheid political parties, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned, there was no effective national (political) organization that mounted a frontal challenge against the apartheid regime. A popular national movement only came to the forefront with the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. UDF affiliates were the ones that instigated unprecedented nationwide uprisings in the early 1980s. It was in this context that a scared and desperate regime declared a series of formal states of emergency, starting in 1985. As the President put it then, a State of Emergency was necessary because “the ordinary laws of the land…are inadequate to enable the Government” to squash the popular revolts.