From the 1970s and into the early 1980s, people across South Africa began to organise community-based groups to oppose the many hardships that apartheid created in their lives. These groups brought together people with similar concerns - sometimes as residents of the same township, at times as women's groups, or student groups, or church groups, or as workers in a factory or an industry. The apartheid government continued to repress banned liberation movements, but its efforts to smash these "grassroots" groups were less effective. By focusing on immediate community problems, these groups survived and multiplied.
In January 1983, a number of these community-based groups held a conference to oppose the South African Indian Council - the Anti-SAIC Conference. In his closing speech at the Anti-SAIC Conference, Dr Allan Boesak, then president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, said:
"We cannot accept a ‘new deal' which makes apartheid work even better. We cannot accept a future for our people when we had no say in it. And we cannot accept a ‘solution' which says yes to homelands, the Group Areas Act, to laws which make us believe that we are separate and unequal."
The Anti-SAIC Conference called for a united front to be launched to co-ordinate the mass campaigns against black local authorities and the tri-cameral parliament. The result was the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) six months later.
In August 1983, representatives from over 475 "grassroots" organisations from across the country came together in Mitchell's Plain in Cape Town to form a single, overarching organisation: the UDF. Within months over 600 organisations had joined in. This heralded a new stage in the mass struggle for the South African liberation.
The UDF aimed to mobilise people and organisations on a national level, throughout the country, against apartheid injustice. It called for the creation of a united, non-racial, non-sexist, and democratic South Africa.
All organisations that joined the UDF adopted the UDF Declaration:
"We, the freedom-loving people of SA, say with one voice to the whole world that we cherish the vision of a united democratic South Africa based on the will of the people. We will strive for unity of all people through united action against the evils of apartheid ... and in our march to a free and just South Africa we are guided by these noble ideals, we stand for the creation of a true democracy in which all South Africans will participate in the government of our country, stand for a single, non-racial, unfragmented South Africa, a South Africa free of Bantustans and Group Areas. We say that all forms of oppression and exploitation must end."
From its birth, the UDF had the support of the banned liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC). The UDF organisations became a way to link with the ANC's internal underground structures, and to establish contacts with the ANC in exile. But these contacts were illegal - South Africa's law laid down a five-year jail sentence for anyone found guilty of "furthering the aims of a banned organisation" such as the ANC.