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The Defiance Campaign: 1988-1989

The State imposed increasingly harsh measures as it renewed the State of Emergency. By 1988, every major mass-based organisation in South Africa faced bannings and restrictions.

In July 1989, the Mass Democratic Movement - the UDF, affiliates and organisations who could not legally organise under their own names - decided that enough was enough. They would refuse to accept the bans and restrictions, and openly declare their political positions.

People all over the country marched in defiance of the restrictions.

One summary of the resistance and repression in 1989 states:

"Daily, the press and SABC announced government crackdowns on the MDM. And while certain actions were taken, detentions did not even begin to approximate the pattern which was maintained almost consistently for 30 months of the national state of emergency - that is, until the hunger strike in February and March this year (1989).

"Repression generally took on new contours: those of containment or pre-emption, rather than confrontation. In many cases this required huge contingents of police and soldiers...

"This force was nearly always disproportionate, since it was generally inflicted on people whose sole offence was to attend a meeting prohibited in one way or another."

Source: Collinge, J. "Defiance: Politics of resistance," Work in Progress, No. 61, September-October, 1989, p. 8.

"The purple shall govern"

A defiance campaign march held in Cape Town on September 2, 1989, involved  500 people who were arrested as they gathered to march to Parliament under the banner "The people shall govern." Stacey, a cultural worker, described this:

"We were in Burg Street when suddenly I saw this huge truck coming towards us. I got a hell of a fright. Then I realized it was a water cannon. As we looked up, a huge wave of purple water was coming at us. People shouted: "Sit! Sit!"

"Then a young white man jumped onto the top of the water cannon and redirected the spray onto the police. The crowd just went mad with joy. It was a wonderful moment, quite heroic.

"Just as that was happening the police charged with sjamboks and everybody started to run. I felt something hit me on my head and I fell, hitting my face on the pavement. People were tripping and falling on top of me. I was suffocating from the people on top of me and the teargas. My face was bleeding.

"Later came the humour - graffiti went up the next day saying "The purple shall govern." And the people felt very united afterwards, so in the end it was a victory for us."

As defiance spread like wild fire, the government met it with yet further crackdown. Mohammed Valli Moosa, acting General-Secretary of the UDF, was detained on August 18. Four days later, Graeme Bloch, a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape and an MDM activist, was picked up. A week later, two more leaders, Trevor Manuel and Titus Mafolo, were detained.

But detentions did not stop the defiance. Banned organizations unbanned themselves. On August 20 the South African Youth Congress (SAYCO) unbanned itself. Ephraim Nkwe of SAYCO declared:

"From this day, the sixth anniversary of the UDF, all restricted organizations will consider themselves to be free to operate and organize within their constituencies."

"All over, since the start of the campaign, over 2000 people have been arrested. More than 240 activists have been detained without trial. As we write, many are still in jail... some were to suffer a fate worse than jail. They were to pay with their lives".

The Congress of South African Students (COSAS) unbanned itself, as did the UDF, the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) and the Soweto Civic Association (SCA), to name a few.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, addressing a march in Cape Town, said:

"We say, hey Mr de Klerk, you have already lost. Our march to freedom is unstoppable. It is the march of all of us South Africans, black and white."

Source: Learn and Teach, No. 5, 1989, p. 38.

Preparing to govern

Parallel to the state's crackdown on the Mass Democratic Movement, hesitant steps were taken to communicate with leaders of the liberation movement in exile, and in its own prisons.

By 1989, the UDF leaders recognised that they also must play a role in the preparations for the future. They looked to engage all sectors of the society in talks about structuring a democratic, united, non-racial and non-sexist society, some time in the not-so-distant future.

On the one hand, the UDF went with business and the churches and other "civil society structures" to talk to the ANC in exile.On the other, they organised conferences around the concept of "preparing to govern."

In September 1988 the state banned the Anti-Apartheid Conference.

In 1989 the MDM organised two conferences. The first, organised jointly with Kagiso Trust, was called "From Opposing to Governing: How Ready is the Opposition?" The second, the "Conference for a Democratic Future", was organised by a committee representing the UDF, Cosatu, the churches, the black consciousness organisations, the Azanian People's Organisation (Azapo) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).

Murphy Morobe described it as:

"not a conference of any one particular tendency within the liberation movement, but of all the people for all the people. It is a democratic conference, a dry run, giving people an inkling of what a future and genuinely democratic parliament would look like."

Source: Seekings, J. "The UDF: A History of the United Democratic Front in South Africa, 1983-1991," David Philip, Cape Town, 2000, p. 256.

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