South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid


Unit 5. Reigniting the Struggle - The 1970s through the Release of Nelson Mandela

The United Democratic Front (UDF) was created in 1983 to provide a forum to oppose the Tricameral Constitution. It came to include more than five hundred political, labor, youth, sport, religious, and community organizations from across the country. The UDF adopted the Freedom Charter, and linked itself increasingly openly with the still-banned African National Congress. Youths were active in the UDF and continued to demonstrate over education issues. The emergence of indigenous liberation theology and the increased brutality of the state toward people advocating equality and justice pushed religious organizations into the UDF, exemplified by the activism of the Reverend Allan Boesak and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. White protest voices were increasingly heard: anti-conscription and underground ANC activists, such as Raymond Suttner, went to jail; Afrikaner rebels, including the poet Breyten Breytenbach and cleric Beyers Naudé, spoke out; and organizations such as the Black Sash, formed by white women in 1955, continued to campaign vigorously against apartheid.

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Union growth culminated in the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in December 1985. COSATU soon became the country’s largest labor federation, with 500,000 members in thirty-three unions, most notably the National Union of Mineworkers. COSATU adopted the ANC’s Freedom Charter principles and linked up with the UDF. When UDF leaders were arrested, COSATU leaders often took their place. The combined power of the UDF and COSATU was a major factor in forcing the apartheid regime to negotiate. Their national influence was grounded in the efforts of many community activists and workers throughout the country. For example, Mandlenkosi Makhoba, a metalworker on the East Rand, was active in union opposition to apartheid. Emma Mashinini was a textile worker who was jailed in the 1980s for her union leadership. After working for thirteen years at a Natal factory that made tires for the military vehicles used against people in his township, Alfred Qabula became a popular "worker poet," reciting the oral literary genre of izibongo (praises) at labor and political meetings.

The broad unity of the UDF and the militancy of the unions posed real threats to the domination of the apartheid state. As a result, the government struck back in mid-1985 by declaring a State of Emergency (martial law). It banned eighteen political organizations; it gave police broad powers to stop "unrest activities"; and imposed heavy censorship on media coverage of anti-apartheid activities. In addition, army troops were deployed in African townships for the first time; tens of thousands of people were detained.

Freedom songs served to inspire and bind together protestors in the face of bullets and sjamboks (metal-tipped whips). The ANC anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, and a new militant dance, the toyi-toyi, imported from guerrilla camps in Zimbabwe, were widely heard at mass demonstrations and activists’ funerals that attracted large crowds and became politicized. "People’s poets" such as Mzhwakhe Mbuli captured the imagination of crowds with their militant poetry. Resistance arts blossomed also in exile. For instance, the ANC musical group "Amandla!" (meaning "power" in Xhosa and Zulu) toured the world spreading the anti-apartheid message in song, and the Medu Arts Ensemble performed in Botswana. Young South Africans creatively employed these new cultural forms of political expression, sometimes in alliance with gangsters and criminals (tsotsis). Outside South Africa, filmmakers Richard Attenborough and Peter Davis produced powerful feature films and documentaries that captured the public imagination in the West and strengthened the anti-apartheid movement.
 
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