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Repressing the UDF Leadership


As the UDF grew, the apartheid regime tried every method at its disposal and every weapon in its arsenal to stop the spreading popular resistance. At times these methods were "legal", following procedures laid down in the laws proclaimed by government. Other methods were acts of war against the population - they included assassination, bombs, and terrorism in the bitter meaning of the word.

What came out so clearly from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings was that the government itself sponsored, and supported, all of these acts, legal and illegal. The police and military themselves were both implicated and instrumental in acts of criminal violence against activists and resistant communities. Apartheid government structures themselves set the framework for these illegal acts.

The first effort of these structures to repress the UDF was to jail its leaders - by detention without trial, and by trial for political crimes.

Imprisoning leaders

Some of the first measures the state tried to repress the UDF was to jail its leaders - by detention without trial, and by trial for political crimes.

In August 1984, during the UDF's highly successful boycotts of the tricameral elections, the state detained 18 of the boycott leaders. In Natal they detained UDF national president Archie Gumede (who was 78 years old); the UDF national treasurer Mewa Ramgobin, who was also publicity secretary of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC); President of the NIC George Sewpersadh; NIC Vice-President MJ Naidoo; trade union leader and NIC member Billy Nair; general secretary of the South African Allied Workers' Union Sam Kikine; and national chairman of the African People's Democratic Union of South Africa, Kadir Hassim.

The detainees appealed to the courts. In early September a judge determined that the detentions were not valid. Minister of Law and Order Louis Le Grange reissued new detention orders immediately, but the seven men had gone into hiding.

On September 13, 1984, six of the leaders who had gone into hiding - Archie Gumede, Mewa Ramgobin, MJ Naidoo, Billy Nair, George Sewpersad and Paul David - took refuge in the British consulate in Durban. They deliberately went to the British consulate to highlight - and protest - the British government's support for the Botha regime.

The British consular officials did not want to give the men sanctuary. They made the living conditions inside the building as bad as they could: the men slept on the floor with no mattresses or pillows; they were allowed to go to the toilets under escort for half an hour each morning; they were only allowed visits from doctors and lawyers (although in fact, the doctors and lawyers who visited them were UDF and NIC members, so they could keep contact with their organisations). One night, a British official played loud and irritating scales on a piccalo all night long by the room where they slept; another night, a security guard threatened to throw one of the men out of the window.

Three of the six left the consulate after three weeks. The government arrested them immediately. The remaining three stayed inside the consulate for 90 days.

On December 10, the South African government backed down in the face of international pressure, and withdrew the detention notices against the men. Two days later, the remaining three activists came out of the consulate; 6000 people met and celebrated on the street outside.

The Pietermaritzburg Treason Trial (1985)

But only days later, the government charged five of the Durban consulate fugitives, and other leaders of the Transvaal UDF and the Release Mandela Committee (RMC) with treason.

Then, on the night of February 18, 1985, police detained leaders from the national UDF and the Transvaal region, including National President, Albertina Sisulu, National Treasurer Cas Saloojee, Frank Chikane, and union officials from the South African Allied Workers' Union (Saawu).

This made up a total of 16 people who were charged for treason and contravening the Internal Security Act no 74 of 1982. This became the Pietermaritzburg Treason Trial - the first political trial targeting the UDF. The UDF pointed out that the UDF itself "was in the dock" - the state claimed that "its ideas, its mode of operating, its very existence" were an act of treason. The sixteen were Mewalal Ramgobin, Chanderdeo "George" Sewpersadh, Mooroogiah "MD" Naidoo, Essop Jassat, Aubrey Mokoena, Curtis Nkondo, Archibald "Archie" Gumede, Devadas "Paul" David, Albertina Sisulu, Frank Chikane, Ebrahim "Cas" Saloojee, (Prof) Ismail Mohammed, Richard Thozamile Gqweta, Sisa Njikelana, Samuel Kikine and Isaac Ngcobo. The last four were all members of the South African Allied Workers Union (SAAWU), while the others were members of the United Democratic Front (UDF), the Transvaal or Natal Indian Congress (TIC and NIC) or affiliated organisations.

The state dropped charges against 12 of the accused in December, 1985. The remaining accused were Saawu officials; the trial against them collapsed after the state introduced suspect evidence. They were released in June 1986.

The Delmas Treason Trial

In June 1985 the state charged 22 UDF leaders and activists from the Vaal with treason, subversion, and murder, in a marathon trial that began in the small town of Delmas. The accused included UDF national leaders Popo Molefe (national general secretary of the UDF), Mosiuoa Patrick "Terror" Lekota (national publicity secretary of the UDF), and Moses "Moss" Chikane (UDF Transvaal secretary). It also included community leaders from the Vaal Civic Association, and other groups. The murder charges were brought on the legal grounds of "common purpose": the state admitted that the people who were charged had not themselves committed murder, but said that as leaders and organisers of the Vaal protests, they should be counted responsible when the protesters killed government officials.

The state dropped charges against three of the accused in 1986.

Over four years after the beginning of the Delmas Treason Trial, in November, 1988, the judge ruled that the UDF had in fact acted as the "internal wing of the ANC", had worked to make the country ungovernable, and to overthrow the government through violence. On December8, the judge sentenced Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota to 12 years in prison, and both Popo Molefe and Moss Chikane to 10 years. Similar sentences were given to the  others found guilty.

In 1989, the Appeal Court overturned the sentencing and the Delmas trialists were released. The trial was the longest political trial in South Africa, with 437 days in court.

The following story comes from an article on the Delmas Treason Trial, in Learn and Teach, No. 3, 1988:

The "Palace of Justice" in Pretoria has a special place in the history of South Africa. It was in this building that Nelson Mandela and his comrades were sentenced to life in prison for plotting to overthrow the government of this country.

Now, 24 years later, 19 men are on trial in the same courtroom. They too are being charged with plotting to overthrow the government. If they are found guilty, they too could be sentenced to life in prison - or maybe even death.

The trial in Pretoria is known as the "Delmas Treason Trial" because it was in the small eastern town of Delmas that the trial began nearly three years ago. The trial, one of the longest in this country's history, was moved to Pretoria in August last year.

When the trial began in June 1985, 22 men stood in the dock. But in November 1986 the judge said three of the 22 were innocent and he set them free.

‘We are not guilty'

The other 19 are still facing charges of treason, subversion, murder, terrorism, and furthering the aims of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party.

Most of those on trial are members of the United Democratic Front and its member organisations. One is a member of the Azanian People's Organisation, and one is a member of Azanian Youth Unity.

Most of the accused come from the townships in the Vaal Triangle. Many of them were members of the Vaal Civic Association (VCA).

The accused have told the court that the VCA was started in October 1983 to fight for better living conditions for the people of Sharpeville, Sebokeng, Boipatong, Evaton, and Bophelong. It was one of the 17 organisations banned by the government in February this year.

When the Lekoa (Vaal) Town Council increased the rent and service charges in August 1984, the VCA called protest meetings. On September 3, it led the residents on a march to the council offices. But the marchers never reached the offices. The police shot at them. People say they gave no warning.

The 19 accused are being charged for the troubles that began in the Vaal on September 3. They are also being charged for the ‘unrest' that afterwards spread through other parts of the country.

At the beginning of the trial, all the accused pleaded not guilty to the charges. They said that it was true that they had fought against apartheid and injustice. But they say that at all times they used peaceful methods and that their organisation worked legally and openly.

Three years of hardship

All the accused have suffered greatly in the past three years. The three UDF leaders, Popo Molefe, Patrick ‘Terror' Lekota and Moses ‘Moss' Chikane are still in jail. They have been behind bars since April 1985. They have asked for bail five times - but each time the judge has refused.

Molefe was arrested a month after his wife gave birth to a daughter. Lekota and Chikane's wives gave birth after their husbands were already charged.

The other 16 are out on bail - but they are not allowed to go home. Most of them live by themselves in Johannesburg. Most days they travel to court in Pretoria - and when they do not have to go to court, they must report to a police station twice a day.

The 19 know that it is not only their own innocence that they must prove. Another 911 people are also named in the charge sheet. Some of these are well known people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rev Frank Chikane, and Dr Beyers Naude. There are also 50 youth, women, worker and community organizations named.

If the 19 accused are found guilty of treason, then all the other people and organisations named may also be charged with treason.

As one of the accused says: "What happens in this trial is important for everybody in the struggle. It is a challenge to those peaceful methods that people have been using to unite people against apartheid."

The viciousness of the repression against the leadership of the UDF serves to throw into stark relief the heroism, sacrifice, and courage of those who defied the apartheid state.

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