Home About Themes Gallery Library Timeline Glossary Links Further Reading Copyright

People's Power


 In July 1985, the government imposed a State of Emergency and sent troops to quell resistance in the townships. On the one hand, the government's attempts to control the townships through black local authorities were in tatters. On the other hand, the mass-based organisations were hard hit hard by the repression - their leaders in detention, on trial, or in hiding.

The UDF responded on two levels: first, to build on-the-ground democratic "organisations of people's power"; and second, to build a united front across all democratic organisations at a national level.

In many townships, grassroots organisations began to build their own structures to look at the day-to-day running of their lives. They formed street and block committees, organised "people's courts", and even put in place clean-up programmes on the streets and built "people's parks".

The state, in turn, claimed that this was further undermining government. As one UDF activist later argued,

"... We were therefore furthering the aims of the ANC and the South African Communist Party, that of overthrowing the state and replacing it with the organs of people's power."

The army and the police were used to crush the street committees and people's courts, and even to tear down the people's parks.

People's power on the streets

In April, 1986, G. Jaffee recounted the effects of mobilising people's power on the streets of Mamelodi:

Mamelodi means "mother of melody". But in recent months this large African township east of Pretoria has seen more conflict and violence than melody. To township residents, a turning point was the November 21 massacre, when police broke up a peaceful protest march of 50 000 residents. Over 13 people were killed and hundreds injured.

The marchers, led by the mothers of Mamelodi, were demanding to see the mayor about a ban on weekend funerals, the restriction of mourners to 50 per funeral, lowering rents and the withdrawal of troops from the township.

The massacre changed relations between the generations in Mamelodi. A member of the Mamelodi Youth Organisation (Mayo) said: "November 21 proved to our parents that we were right about the police and the struggle - they are now participating with us."

The formation of the United Democratic Front and its call for a boycott of the 1983 township elections opened the way for new political groupings in the township. Mayo, made up mainly of unemployed youth, was formed in the same year. The Mamelodi Parents' Association (MPA) emerged from the boycotts of 1984.

Both have provided important organisational strength in Mamelodi. They gained momentum from popular reaction to the presence of the army in the township and the increased levels of violence following the declaration of emergency. After the banning of the Congress of South African Students in August 1985, they became still more active.

Last year Mayo and MPA members co-ordinated campaigns with the Pretoria regional consumer boycott and stayaway committees. Since the November shootings, other organisations have emerged, such as the Mamelodi Relief Committee, which organises funerals, and a civic association which was launched recently.

As well as formulating demands concerned with local issues in the township, these community organisations have also vociferously articulated national demands through their affiliation to the UDF.

Clean-up campaigns and street committees

A recent development is the emergence of street committees, which participate in "Operation Clean-up" campaigns. The campaigns were first started in June 1985 by Mayo and other youth activists who wanted to weed out criminals and hooligans using the political struggle for their own ends.

After November 21 the "clean-up" came to include garbage collection, when the town council was believed to have stopped the service in response to the widespread rent strike. Community organisation services also include building of parks named after political symbols.

Such new and constructive forms of popular resistance are predominantly initiated and carried out by young activists. They see themselves as political watch-dogs in the community. But they appear to be broadening their support base as older and more conservative members of the community become increasingly politicised by police violence.

The sounds of South African Defence Force activity, gunshots, Casspirs and police vans are everyday background noises for Mayo members. They refer to themselves as "activists", and call one another "comrade"; "A comrade is a person who does and feels the same as oneself, a person who can be trusted - a loyal friend."

Source: Jaffee, G. "Beyond the Cannon of Mamelodi," Work in Progress, No. 41, April, 1986

In the township of Alexandra

In Alexandra, the manifestation of people's power resulted in a time of ungovernability - a desired effect of the UDF. Two activists described their experiences to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The following formed part of the testimony of Bennet Lekalakala at the TRC hearings in Alexandra (Alex) in 1996:

In early 1986 Alex erupted in violence and joined the countrywide revolt. The youth joined hands with Alex Civic Association and the newly formed Alex Action Committee. This increased confrontation with the state. Local grievances and structural factors taken together prompted a challenge to state control at the local level. What took place in 1986 in Alex was a movement from communal outrage to avid rebellion. The period was characterised by mass funerals where people were tear-gassed and restrictions were placed on funerals. However, these restrictions were defied by members of the community.

A notable funeral is that of Michael Duradingwe, who was shot by a security guard at Jess Stores. It was held at the Alexandra stadium and it was organised by members of Asco and ACO. The announcement of the formations of organs of people's power, that is yard, street and block committees, was made. It was at the night vigil that the police angered mourners. Tear-gas was fired at the people singing at the Duradingwe yard. During the early hours of the day of the funeral Jess Stores was attacked and set alight. Municipal police officers were attacked.

This was the beginning of what was later to be known as the Alex six-day war. This was characterised by death and destruction. People perceived as collaborators were attacked and Constable Mashele was one of those who were burnt during this period. As days went by, more and more houses belonging to policemen were attacked and another policeman and an old lady accused of being a witch were burnt to death.

Events surrounding the funeral of Michael Duradingwe marked a new departure in township life. This was not an insurrection but merely a response by the people to conditions in the township. Many people were killed during the six-day war. Two official mass funerals were held in Alexandra for victims of the six-day war.

In response to the events of the six-day war there was a call for governability within ungovernability as the township got ungovernable to the government and to the people. It was out of the battle to wrest control of the township from the state that the slogan "Forward to People's Power" was taken up. Boycotts were called, including the rent boycott.

On the evening of April 22, 1986 Alex policemen sought their revenge and a group of them calling themselves new comrades or amacabasa launched attacks on the community and at least five people were killed. And during the six-day war the official estimate of people who died during that period is 29. However, unconfirmed reports showed that more than 29 people were killed on that particular day.

Maybe to go deeply into the six-day war, it was sparked off by the attack by the police on the mourners at the night vigil and this then led to the outbreak of violence. Police were attacked, as I have already indicated, and people were killed, and this led to those two official mass funerals where a number of people who were killed then were buried and many other people were unidentified and were thus not buried by their relatives and friends.

And then the mid-1980s also saw confrontation between members of ACO and Azapo. This resulted in the death of a number of members of both organisations.

The 1986 state of emergency was followed by a large-scale detention of activists and consequently by two trials, namely State versus Zwane and Others and State versus Mayekiso and Others.

Many activists were released in 1989 with restrictions and continued to be involved in the struggle by reviving organisational structures right into the 1990s.

Source: South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Human Rights Violations Submissions, Alexandra, October 29, 1996.

Obed Bapela described the formation of street committees and people's courts in Alexandra to the TRC:

The events that led to the six-day war started in 1985, around June I think, when a lot of townships in South Africa were aflame. There was a lot of activity and uprisings in most of the townships at that time and the Eastern Cape was leading at that period I am mentioning, and this sort of inspired a lot of other townships in the belief that the activities in the Eastern Cape reminded them of the "M plan", the Mandela plan, which was known in the 1950s, and then people wanted really to also begin a process of establishing those structures of the street committees, the block committees and the yard committees within their own areas, within their own townships. And also in the Transvaal, the then Transvaal, the main activity was the start of the rent boycotts in the Vaal, Sebokeng and Sharpeville townships and then it spread to Soweto, and also Alexandra then came into the picture during 1986. And also during 1985 there was the consumer boycott ... those activities were also happening in Alexandra, where people were stopped from buying from white shops and then only to buy in the black shops. So those then are the events that built on the mobilisation which was there in Alexandra and around January there were shootings that occurred at shops [in] Third Avenue and London Street ... I don't know what provoked the incident but what we read was that the security guard who was employed there shot at some youths who were coming to buy or were playing around at that particular area.

... So then one of those youths who was shot was Michael Duradingwe and I think that that provoked the whole situation in Alexandra, that killing. At that time he was a pupil at Alexandra High School and then during the weekend on which he was buried, which was the weekend of February 15, the funeral took place at the Alexandra stadium and then after the funeral they wanted his parents to go and wash their hands and also be provided with whatever and the police came and tear-gassed people at that funeral and that provoked the youth of our township really then to mobilise. And then attacks started where police became the targets and then Alexandra was in flames for a period of six days and that is why we lost about 19 people during that particular period in time.

... The idea [of forming street committees] was an idea which we saw developing in the Eastern Cape and fortunately at that time I was working for Media and Resource Centre and one used to travel a lot to the Eastern Cape to go and trade ideas about organisations, media skills and pamphleteering and so forth. So one was exposed to street committees; how they operate and function and the order in which they are brought into the community; and the respect of their families and their committee as a whole that it brought.

So we then started sharing the idea with other comrades in Alexandra - about establishing street committees so that people can take their destiny into their own hands and show that they are able to live as human beings and as a community, sharing the sorrows and sharing the joy you know together as a community.

The discussion started around November/December for such an idea of the street committees.

Then a group of us was mandated to begin discussions with the Alexandra Civic Association, which was led by Mike Bia, to say why don't you build a strong organisation, a mass-based organisation and this is the format ... where you move from area to area, street to street, yard to yard and then begin to establish these committees. Explain to the people first and then thereafter the people will appoint their own committees and so forth.

... We then approached Moses Mayekiso, who was a leading trade unionist known within the country, a member of Numsa [National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa] to say: can you be the leader of this new organisation? That will then be structured along the street committees and so forth. ...

I was not part of them because at that time the police were looking for me for a trial in Cradock so I had to be very careful. I used to come in during the night in Alexandra and speak to the comrades and leave and they would do the rest of the work and then go on hiding.

And so they managed therefore to convince comrade Moses Mayekiso and he accepted and then a series of meetings between the students' organisation, the Alexandra Youth Congress at that time started with Moses and the others to meet with the people in their yards, called committee meetings where they will explain the structure and then people would go back, discuss and then begin to establish democratically those structures and then elected people democratically to serve them. And then this spread throughout the township.

It was at that time when the people were moving from street to street when the incident at the funeral of Michael Duradingwe [occurred] and Alexandra was engulfed into a six-day war.

Forming people's courts

The whole idea of a people's court I think started in around 1985 with the youth who were continuously mobilising each other around the consumer boycott. In Alexandra the youth then formed themselves into anti-crime patrol groups, moving from one shebeen to the other, telling the youth not to be drinking in the shebeens. Whenever they found youths they would take them out and tell them to go home. If you were a student they would tell you to go and study... ... and as a result crime came to zero in Alexandra. The type of funerals that took place ever since were the people who died because of natural causes. There were no longer such deaths caused by fights and stabbings or gun shootings.

It worked, that anti-crime campaign. Whenever they found knives or weapons on the individuals they would take them away from them into one centre where they would then destroy them ...

People began to have confidence in the youths for this very good work. They started bringing problems to the youths, saying "I have got a problem with my neighbour" or "I have got a problem with my wife" and so forth. ... Obviously they were quite selective, they were only looking for those violent types of cases. They would start putting the complainant and the perpetrator together and say "can we talk amongst ourselves and resolve this matter amicably". ... So it was more to give advice than really to prosecute or to sentence people.

So it sort of spread throughout Alexandra. Wherever there was a group of youths that would go out on an anti-crime the residents would go to them to say "we need your assistance". They did the work quite excellently and without any sjambokings and sentences.

But unfortunately as time went on, after the six-day war, when now everyone was angry, it was the deaths and Alexandra was unsettled ... Some of the youths got excited, unfortunately. When people were brought, instead of resolving those problems ... they started trialling people and prosecuting them; in some instances then they would sentence them to sjambokings and so forth.

So it then became a norm in those people's courts ... When we were arrested, amongst the charges under sedition and subversion was that we had run those courts. But the intention there from the state was that we had taken over the justice administration, which is the function of the South African government and was now in the hands of the people. Therefore we were furthering the aims of the ANC and the South African Communist Party, that of overthrowing the state and replacing it with the organs of people's power ... There was no evidence that said I myself did sjambok anybody or any of the accused did sjambok anybody. But they just took all those things and then put them on us, because when you are on treason, it is everything that was done. Whether you are there or you are not there or at a given point you are in prison, when charges are formulated you find yourself in that situation.

Source:South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Human Rights Violations Submissions, Alexandra, October 29, 1996.

Viva UDF: build the front

For the third anniversary of the UDF, in August 1986, Murphy Morobe, then acting publicity secretary, wrote:

We celebrate the third birthday of the United Democratic Front against the background of a massive state clampdown on legal mass democratic opposition to its [the government's] apartheid policies.

More ominous was the threat by the Minister of Law and Order, Louis le Grange, to "smash" the UDF, coming just a few days before the declaration of a general State of Emergency.

Our view remains that the national state of emergency is in fact an admission by the government of its total inability to rule this country without the use of massive force...

It will also be sheer bravado on our side were we to claim that we've not been affected by the emergency. With well over 10 000 people detained - most from our affiliates countrywide - the effects cannot but be felt.

But because of the depth of organisation in our various communities and the continued monopolising of political power by the white minority, the tide of anti-apartheid opposition cannot be reversed.

... Anything less than one vote in a unitary South Africa will not be acceptable to the majority of our people. And until the government realises this, the cycle of violence will continue to escalate.

Now is the time for all democrats to pick up the key to South Africa's future that PW Botha has thrown away, and to ensure that together we will end minority rule and create the conditions for lasting peace and prosperity.

SourceMorobe, M. "No pussyfooting will change Nat thinking," Sunday Times, August 24, 1986 (South African History Archive, AL2460: Julie Frederikse Collection).

In May 1987 the UDF National Working Committee held a conference in Durban. The conference was held in a climate of secrecy: the venue even had to be changed in the course of the conference. But the conference made it clear that despite the repression, and the attacks on its members, the UDF was indeed coping under the ongoing State of Emergency.

The national report adopted at the conference recognised the recent changes experienced within the UDF:

"Over the past two years the struggle has indeed moved from protest to challenge. Apartheid rule is being challenged on every front." It claimed the UDF had "become the vehicle which embodies the political aspirations of the broad masses. Every sector of our movement looks towards the front for political expression and leadership."

Source:Seekings, J. "The UDF: A History of the United Democratic Front in South Africa, 1983-1991," David Philip, Cape Town, 2000, p. 212.

May Day: organising the mass democratic movement in the face of repression

In 1987, the UDF formed an alliance to resist the ongoing State of Emergency, linking together the union federation Cosatu, the progressive churches under the South African Council of Churches, and the UDF affiliates including Sayco (South African Youth Congress) and Nusas (National Union of South African Students).

On May 5 and 6, UDF and Cosatu jointly called for a national stayaway, to protest yet another whites-only elections on May 6. Two and a half million people answered the stayaway call. But the day after, on May 7, agents of the state bombed Cosatu House.

In February 1988, the state yet again passed new restriction orders on the UDF, Cosatu, and 16 other organisations. A number of leaders were restricted as well.

The UDF responded by having affiliates and local and regional structures take over campaigns. Many people carried on the organisation as before, but working under new names. Increasingly, this was co-ordinated under the broad label of the "MDM" (for the "Mass Democratic Movement"), rather than specifically named organisations. The MDM was not a formal structure, and Cosatu increasingly took on a co-ordinating role within the mass movement.

The efficiency of mass mobilisation was being clearer to all UDF affiliates. According to Chris Dlamini, vice-president of Cosatu,

"... You no longer have a situation whereby different organisations simply adopt the Charter and stop there. But now you have a situation where these various organisations will come together to formulate a joint strategy and programme of action."

© SAHA 2020 Disclaimer Privacy Policy