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. 

Apartheid A Crime Against Humanity
Passbook that the South African Blacks are required to carry. 1/Jan/1985. UN Photo/x.

Formation and Structure of the UDF ///

The UDF brought together under its umbrella a loose coalition of civic associations, student organizations, youth congresses, women’s groups, trade unions, church societies, sports clubs and a multitude of other organizations. The UDF’s inaugural conference in August 1983 brought together 565 organizations with a collective membership of 1.65 million; “these included 47 student organizations, 313 youth organizations, 18 trade unions, 82 civic associations, 32 women’s organizations, and 78 other organizations, including political, religious, sports and other cultural organizations” (Gregory Houston, National Liberation Struggle in South Africa, 1999). The UDF was initially formed to mount collective resistance against two sets of reform measures. Firstly, the 1983 constitution that sought to open the whites-only parliament to Coloured people and Indians while the majority of the population (“Black Africans”) would remain without franchise and representation. Secondly, and perhaps more immediately, Black uprisings were sparked by the introduction of Bills that sought to devolve more local governance powers to municipal councils. These latter set of reforms enabled these loathed councils to raise rent and other tariffs. Impoverished working class communities responded by mounting violent riots. These uprisings were led by youth groups and civic organisations. Most of these organisations were affiliates of the UDF. 

Structurally, the UDF was as simple as it was complex. At the national level it comprised a federation of regional UDF bodies, each which was an umbrella structure for diverse affiliated organizations. These organizations existed independent of the UDF and remained autonomous. Ideologically, the UDF was ambiguous. The main objective that brought these organizations together was the fact that they had a common enemy: the apartheid system of exploitation and domination. The opposition that emerged under the banner of the UDF was therefore shaped more by pragmatic efforts than by ideology. The leaders of the UDF were concerned not to repeat the mistakes of the 1970s when ideology overrode strategic concerns leading to the fizzling out of the 1970s uprisings, such as the 1976 Soweto school student one. In line with this thinking, guidelines that were drawn up at the UDF’s first conference called for the establishment of a “united front” against the apartheid regime and included a dedication to the “‘creation of a non-racial, unitary state, undiluted by racial or ethnic considerations as formulated in the bantustan policy,’ the adoption of a non-racial form of organization and the need to consult with ‘all democratic people wherever they may be’.” (Houston, 1999). The practical advantage of this approach led to the rapid development of the UDF, connecting disparate affiliates less concerned with ideological purity than strategic advantage. 

Although, the prevailing view when it was formed was that the UDF will just coordinate opposition to the state’s cosmetic reforms, by the mid-1980s the role of the UDF included the coordination of resistance to apartheid and thus around 1987, the UDF is said to have claimed a prime role for itself in the struggle for liberation: “that of organising the masses of people in an unstoppable tide towards liberation.” The important point here is that although the UDF was formed as a response to fake state reforms and thus engaged in “reactive” politics, it later metamorphosed into a movement that focused on the total liberation of South Africans. Houston has therefore argued that the UDF strategies conformed to three of Antonio Gramsci’s central requirements that revolutionary movement must fulfill in its struggle for hegemony: 

“These are the need to ‘begin with the concrete particulars of people’s everyday lives’ (which was done by focusing on rent and education issues), the need to be ‘prepared to seek durable alliances that transcend a class base’ (which the UDF did by gathering organizations ‘under the broad Charterist rubric of non-racial democracy’) and the need to ‘transform the particular, often economic, demands of interests groups into a universalistic political challenge of the dominant system’ (which the UDF did in its popular campaigns which ‘systematically sought to unite participants in the expression of national political demands’).” (Houston, 1999).

Apartheid A Crime Against Humanity
Mourners at a funeral ceremony for those who were killed by the South African police on this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, at Langa Township in Uitenhage. The Day is commemorated each year as the anniversary of the 21 March 1960 Sharpeville massacre. 1/Mar/1985. UN Photo/x. 

The journey towards the UDF becoming, what Michael Neocosmos refers to as, “the most important and truly organizational expression of popular resistance in South Africa in the 1980s” (From People’s Politics to State Politics, 1998) was a long and uneven one. Tom Lodge concisely outlines the five stages the UDF went through in its development in the 1980s: 

“The first stage was a period of high-profile campaigning, with the national leadership orchestrating opposition to the municipal elections in the townships in November 1983 and the Coloured and Indian parliamentary elections of August 1984. This activity was followed by a second in which, in the words of one journalist, the UDF became ‘a movement spurred from below rather than pulled from above,’ as the organization became caught up in the opposition to black town councils, beginning with the ‘Vaal Uprising’ of September 1984. The third stage began with the government’s efforts to counter ‘ungovernability’ in the townships by proclaiming a state of emergency in July 1985, itself generating new forms of opposition and organization from which the UDF appeared to emerge more strongly entrenched than ever. A fourth phase was initiated in June 1986, when a second state of emergency seemed to succeed in suppressing the main centers of rebellion. The fifth stage, which began in 1988 and brought the decade to a close, saw a revival of resistance, with churches and labor unions supplying the leadership.” (Bill Nasson and Tom Lodge, All, Here, and Now: Black Politics in South Africa in the 1980s, 1991).

The first wave of township resistance after the 1976 Student Uprisings was caused by the state’s decision to introduce community councils in 1977. The main cause of popular resentment against these community councils was the fact that the state wanted to make these councils self-financing. The major source of revenue for community councils being rent and services chargers meant that to be viable these councils had to extract rent and service charges from the local population. Community organizations mobilized communities in resistance, employing a wide variety of tactics including rent and election boycotts, calls on councilors to resign and physical attacks on some councillors and/or their property. 

Most of these organizations mobilized locally around single-issues and in relative isolation from each other. The effect of this was that they were not able to keep their members actively engaged in collective action, let alone link up their struggles with other organizations in order to mount a decisive challenge against the entire system that oppressed and exploited them. With the formation of the UDF in 1983, Glenn Adler and Jonny Steinberg report that a discernible dualism animated the activities of these civic organizations: “on the one hand, a certain distance from the sphere of the political in their capacity as non-aligned civic representatives; on the other, a deep immersion in the political as the fundamental arm of the Charterist liberation movement.” (From Comrades to Citizens, 2000).

Apartheid A Crime Against Humanity
Meeting of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Johannesburg. 1/Jan/1985. UN Photo/x.

Civic Organizations and “People’s Power” ///

The high-point in the resistance against the colonialist permanent state of emergency and disaster is the “moment” that took place in the mid-1980s when insurgents elaborated the concept of “people’s power” to make sense of their insurrection. As already mentioned, “insurrection” first erupted in the townships of the Vaal triangle where working class communities refused continuing to tolerate undemocratic local governance and lack of access to basic services and goods. They engaged in direct action tactics such as road blockades, battles with police and the burning of government offices. Jeremy Seekings reports that these violent protests and confrontations led many activists to begin to think that “revolutionary seizure of power was ‘just around the corner’.”. These struggles were, therefore, as much about material issues as they were about issues of governance. So while rendering local areas “ungovernable,” it became necessary to establish “alternative structures.” Thus, at a UDF national conference in 1985, Popo Molefe argued that:

“In the townships, the black local authorities are inoperative. […] Now our task is to extend our struggles beyond these apartheid structures and set up our alternative structures which will force the authorities to heed the popular demands of the people. We must set up projects to meet some of the practical needs of our people without compromising our principles. For example, advice offices, mobile clinics, etc.”

Thus, civic organizations not only engaged in reactive struggles they simultaneously presented themselves as alternative loci of representation and governance. Aldler and Steinberg thus explain that “residents were not only to boycott the statutory bodies which were supposed to represent them, but were to reassemble in the structures of the civic which was itself to assume a quasi-representational role. Civics construed themselves as the democratic assemblies that apartheid always denied to Africans. They also erected informal courts and dispute-resolution forums which were presented as replacements for apartheid’s judicial machinery. In some instances where apartheid municipalities had broken down or been rendered ‘ungovernable’ by protest, the civics assumed rudimentary administrative and service functions.”

Civic organizations and mass organizations, through street committees, street courts, defense committees, student representative council, and other local structures, therefore came to be seen as “organs of people’s power.” A clear interpenetration of civic and political issues was evident in the work of these organs. “People’s power” went beyond rendering state control impossible and illegitimate; it was fundamentally about participatory democracy and active citizenship. Blade Nzimande and Mpumelglo Sikhosana record that these “organs of people’s power” possessed the essence of participatory democracy because they had the following characteristics: “a democratic project; fundamental transformation of society; accountability; and working class leadership” (“Civics are part of the National Democratic Revolution,” 1991).

Here is a key message. The significance of “people’s power” went beyond the fact that they enabled people to take control over their lives. “People’s power” inaugurated a distinctly popular-democratic political project in South Africa. In theory and in practice, “people’s power” introduced, albeit unevenly, a new mode of politics based on accountable, mass-based democratic leadership. At their best, politics of “people’s power” understood politics as both a means and ends.

Apartheid A Crime Against Humanity
South African police at Alexandra Township 1/Jan/1985. UN Photo/x.

Furthermore, for the UDF and its affiliates, “organs of people’s power” were the means by which power itself could be transformed; even before formal transfer of power happened via capture of the levers of the state. This brief account sought to show that the township revolts and subsequent establishment of “organs of people’s power” in the mid-1980s introduced politics of active citizenship based on popular democratic theory and practice. When the UDF was formed, it sought to mobilize resistance in the style and orientation of the United States civil rights movement. Spurred from below by insurrections in the township and the setting up of localized and popular-controlled administrative and judicial structures, the UDF elaborated a strategic framework of “people’s power”, thereby replacing the discourse of human rights with a discourse of power. This is what made this period truly emancipatory. 

Centralization of the Struggle and the Demise of “People’s Power” ///

The high “moment” of township insurrection and “people’s power” was however short-lived. On June 12, 1986, Prime Minister P. W. Botha extended the state of emergency to the whole country and gave the securocrats free rein to implement their own version of total counter-revolutionary strategy. By the end of that year several thousand activists faced arrests, indefinite detention and where necessary, assassinations. Using emergency regulations, the state managed to introduce a sustained crackdown on community organizations and their activities. In 1986 alone, over 20,000 activists were detained; some remained in custody until 1989. These crackdowns were followed by a number of political and criminal trials, as well as the banning of meetings and some sympathetic newspapers. These repressive measures were complemented with the upgrading of townships under the government’s “Total Strategy” campaign, meant to use economic reforms to win the minds and hearts of township folk. 

The detention of many township-based activists and the repression of the UDF and its activities resulted in the UDF centralizing decision making and initiating campaigns “from above.” In response to the repression that had been unleashed by Botha’s securocrats, the UDF initiated two campaigns: “Christmas Against the Emergency” and “Unban the ANC,” as part of the Campaign for National United Action launched in late 1986. Indicative of the fact that the UDF was not in touch with grassroots activists’ concerns and thinking, these two campaigns encountered limited organizational success and were not successful in turning the tide against unrelenting and brutal repression. As repression continued, cracks began to emerge within the resistance movement. Emblematic of this was the enforcement of boycotts by comtsostis — thugs who used the political struggle to engage in criminal activities. This undemocratic and thuggish behavior alienated a lot of township residents.

On February 24, 1988, the Minister of Law and Order effectively banned the UDF and several of its affiliates. Despite this ban the UDF did continue to operate quietly; maintaining and rebuilding structures and engaging in discrete campaigns against the repression. The UDF also sought to build new and broader political alliances. In 1989, the latter objective eventually led to the formation of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) consisting of the UDF, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and a number of faith-based groups.

By late 1988, due to a range of geopolitical and economic factors, the ANC was beginning to regain its status as a central player in opposition politics and the locus of opposition politics shifted from internally based organizations to the exiled or jailed ANC. Talks between the ANC and the government were gaining momentum with discussions taking place between apartheid regime and the jailed Mandela and the exiled ANC leadership. A series of consultations, which took place in late 1988 and 1989, helped solidify the relationship between the ANC and the MDM. 

In August 1989, the UDF, together with its allies in the MDM, embarked on its first sustained mass protest since the Emergency began. This civil disobedience campaign, aimed at defying the laws that segregated public and workplace facilities on racial grounds, as well as emergency restrictions placed on political activists, signaled a shift back to civil rights-like campaigns. This campaign, thought out by the UDF-ANC-COSATU alliance, had an eye on the international arena and sought to indicate popular opposition to the state, while at the same time contesting the state’s claim to be “reformist.” This defiance campaign was frequently compared with the ANC’s 1952 Defiance Campaign and was intended to rebuild a mass movement around the UDF and MDM just as the ANC had grown into a mass movement through the 1952 campaign. Like the 1952 campaign, this campaign was couched in terms of moral politics and a civil rights discourse. 

Therefore, by late 1989, the era of the “power discourse” had been replaced by that of the moralistic and universalistic “rights discourse.” Further, by January 1990, “the more substantive view of participatory democracy that had been widespread in 1986 gave way, at least among the UDF leadership, to a procedural view of democracy emphasizing elections and representative government.” (Seekings, 2000). This was no doubt influenced by the ANC which by the late 1980s had replaced revolutionary slogans with calls for political liberty based on universal franchise, representative government and a supreme constitution that contained a bill of rights. 

Apartheid A Crime Against Humanity
Protest meeting of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Johannesburg. 1/Mar/1985. UN Photo/x.

On February 2, 1990, the last colonial President, F.W. de Klerk, announced the unbanning of the ANC and other liberation parties and organizations. A debate ensued amongst followers of the MDM: what should be the role of the UDF in the context when the ANC has been unbanned. The prevailing argument was that the UDF should disband and local UDF affiliates should either reconstitute themselves into local ANC branches or join newly created ANC branches. It thus came to be that on February 14, 1991, the UDF’s National Executive Committee held its final meeting and the UDF was officially disbanded. 

From People’s Power to a Permanent state of Emergency ///

The disbanding of the UDF and the enforced demobilization and cannibalization of local “organs of people’s power” led to a defeat of the discourse of (people’s) power and the triumph of discourse of civic rights. This paved the way for triumph of the paradigm of democratization vis-a-vis politics of decolonization. The ethos of participatory democracy were replaced by those of procedural and representative democracy. Thus, when the newly elected ANC government, in 1996, ditched a mildly social democratic macroeconomic policy (Reconstruction and Development Programme) and replaced it with an overwhelmingly neoliberal macroeconomic policy (the ironically-named Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme), there was no popular mass-democratic movement to challenge this seeming betrayal. This programme led to water and electricity cuts, evictions from council-owned houses, retrenchment of state employees and massive social dislocation. Today, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. Unemployment, structural impoverishment, and entrenched inequalities are permanent features of this society. This is to say that an overwhelming majority of the population continue to exist in a state of permanent emergency. ■