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UDF at 40: Time for youth to lead revolutionary change

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Picture Henk Kruger / African News Agency (ANA) – It took 40 years for the sleeping giant to rise, calling decisively for active citizenry, transparency, accountability, and good corporate governance and now the youth is called to action.

By Siva Naidoo

The United Democratic Front’s 40th commemoration on August 20, at the Johannesburg City Hall, was a seminal moment for some of us former UDF and Mass Democratic Movement activists. It brought back a flood of nostalgic memories for those who attended the historic launch of the UDF in Mitchell’s Plain in the Western Cape four decades ago.

As a former UDF activist, I revelled in the celebration, meeting old comrades and re-establishing connections after many decades. Undeniably, there was an overflow of excitement as the sheer magnitude of the intellect, humility and leadership capacity present in this magnificent venue overwhelmed my tired mind. I somehow felt reinvigorated and my retired body felt battle-ready for a second phase of a people’s struggle.

The National Steering Committee did an excellent job, clearly demonstrating its organisational capacity, which resembled the spirit and discipline of pre-1994. More than a thousand people attended this event, representing a vast spectrum of organisations from civil society, labour, business, youth, and religion.

The organisational representation cuts across race and class. It was heart-warming to see the majestic Johannesburg City Hall filled with a kaleidoscope of colours, of people coming together, seeking answers on how to renew and rebuild a people’s movement as opposed to renewing a ruling party at war with itself for resources and power.

Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/Africa News Agency (ANA) – The UDF’s 40th commemoration concluded on a high note with a ‘Declaration of Intent which commits ordinary South Africans to becoming active citizens says the writer.

The gathering resembled a people’s parliament. I, too, had great hope about how it would give us a strategic vision to reclaim a people’s movement that could advance the interests of all South Africans, towards building a transformative, capable and developmental state that seeks to eradicate poverty, build state capacity and grow the economy.

All the speakers spoke in unison, about the important role the UDF played in its short eight-year lifespan. It begged a question as to why such a rich diversity of grass roots structures across all sectors was dissolved in 1991, in favour of the ANC which still espouses democratic centralism as opposed to the bottom-up structures of the former UDF.

President Cyril Ramaphosa reminded us of how the UDF was a vehicle for a people’s resistance against the tyranny of apartheid. He reflected, not only, on how efficiently the UDF mobilised and organised but how it enjoyed popular and credible support.

This support base did not need T-shirts and KFC to participate in its struggle for emancipation.

As I listened to each speaker, I started to experience hope. My thoughts resonated fully with Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, who passionately argued, and I quote, “The struggle is not over; we cannot sit back simply to revel in past victories. Too much remains to be changed. We must rise again from our current ruinous state and get back on track to achieve the ideals and values that our Constitution promises. We need to work hard to reset, especially the moral compass of our country.”

How exactly do we do that? We need the continuation of an age-old struggle against self-interest and patronage to replace the current ideals of accumulation and greed.

Makgoba reminds us of how we must restart and reset the moral compass. This means reclaiming our ubuntu where the pursuit of human values translates to love, caring and sharing of opportunities for all.

Khotso Chikane, a youth speaker from “Defend our Democracy” spoke with great passion when explaining how his generation felt when he said: “What I do wish to tell you today is that there is a revolutionary politics being formed in my generation. A growing disquiet with what we have experienced over the last 30 years and what we believe we will continue to experience for the next 30 years if nothing is fundamentally changed. We have a growing belief that something is broken in our country. I am here to tell you that the success of whatever declaration is adopted today is wholly dependent on those in this room, understanding that there is something fundamentally flawed in our democracy. Whether or not we can change this flawed democracy is dependent on the adoption of a political consciousness that is willing to imagine, demand, and create a second Republic.”

Chikane’s plea to all of us is abundantly clear. He argues that a revolutionary change is beckoning in this country, a change that is being precipitated by the growing realisation that democratic South Africa bears an eerie resemblance to the inequality of apartheid.

It was equally refreshing to hear another youth leader, Zaakarah Vawda, from “Defend our Democracy” who made a clarion call to action. A call for active citizenry, for change, for transformation, and for democratic renewal.  He made an emphatic plea and challenged three categories of people who are represented by public servants, politicians, and ordinary citizens to expose corruption as and when it rears its ugly head.

The call to action is recorded as the second historical platform for the UDF, calling for change. The first call was before democracy and the second call is post our democracy. It took 40 years for the sleeping giant to rise, calling decisively for active citizenry, transparency, accountability, and good corporate governance.

The commemoration concluded on a high note with a “Declaration of Intent” which commits ordinary South Africans to becoming active citizens. It seeks to re-ignite and re-energise activism, and not only to hold the government accountable but to challenge the government to become responsible, accountable, and reflective.

My own conclusion is that:

a) The UDF 40 project should not be hijacked by the 2024 election campaign, and it should remain an independent, autonomous people’s project.

b) We must look at structural deficiencies that hamper our democracy including the prospect of electoral reform.

c) The co-existence of all the economic classes in South Africa must be reflected in a people’s movement. We need a people’s movement that speaks to all economic classes in South Africa.

* Siva Naidoo is a former 1970s activist.