The United Democratic Front

Established in the early 1980s, the United Democratic Front (UDF) has an interesting, if somewhat dark, history in KwaZulu-Natal. A coalition of hundreds of organisations banded together with the common aim of non-racialism, the UDF’s first regional committee was from Natal, set up in May 1983. Officially though, the UDF was only launched nationally a few months later, on the 20th August. Organisers weren’t quite ready for the launch but the driving force behind the coalition was the formation of the Tricameral Constitution, which the government planned to introduce on the same day. The new constitution supposedly introduced political reform, sharing power between the white, coloured, and Indian communities. In reality though, the majority of the power still lay in the hands of the white population with all black persons still completely excluded from participating in government.

Frances Baard addresses a meeting of the UDF

Frances Baard addresses a meeting of the UDF

Over the years, the UDF became a force to be reckoned with, a fact that the government recognised and responded to by banning the organisation, which it saw as a shadow organisation of the ANC. In fact, the two organisations didn’t always see eye to eye. The ANC rejected the UDF’s involvement in the Freedom Charter (which would go on to inform the Bill of Rights), and the UDF was opposed to the often militant tactics of the ANC. Yet, despite the UDF’s call for a non-violent struggle, their relationship with other political parties in Natal, namely the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), resulted in the deaths of thousands of people in Mpumalanga, a township just outside of Cato Ridge. (For an in-depth look at the political history of Mpumalanga visit

Funeral of an IFP activist who was killed during clashes with the UDF

Funeral of an IFP activist who was killed during clashes with the UDF

Beginning in 1985, the violence persisted for a number of years, until a settlement between the feuding parties was eventually negotiated in 1991. Violent conflict also arose between members of the UDF and Azapo (the Azanian People’s Organisation), who largely followed the philosophy of the Black Consciousness Movement.  It’s believed though that the differences between the two organisations were not as serious as alleged. In many cases the government tried to blame Azapo members for attacks on UDF supporters when the attacks were actually the work of right-wing vigilantes, often acting with the assistance of the police. The same is thought of the clashes between the UDF and the IFP – that the IFP were working in collusion with the South African Police Force in order to bring about instability, and weaken overall opposition to the apartheid government.

On the 2nd February 1990, South Africa’s then president, F.W. de Klerk, announced the unbanning of political organisations, including the ANC and the UDF. In March 1991, the decision to disband the UDF was made and the organisation held its last meeting on the 14th August 1991, officially ‘closing its doors’ on the 20th August, some eight years after it was first formed. It is estimated that during its time the UDF had close to 2.5 million members. While impossible to provide a complete list of all the organisations affiliated with the UDF here, below are some of the more prominent affiliated members:

Political Organisations

  • End Conscription Campaign
  • Cape Democrats
  • Transvaal Indian Congress
  • Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee
  • Five Freedoms Forum
  • Natal Indian Congress
  • Detainees’ Parents’ Support Committee

Youth Organisations

  • South African Youth Congress
  • Congress of South African Students

Women’s Organisations

  • Federation of South African Women
  • Port Elizabeth Women’s Organisation
  • United Women’s Organisation
  • Federation of Transvaal Women

Civic Associations

  • Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation
  • Cape Areas Housing Action Committee
  • Soweto Civic Association
  • Vaal Civic Association
  • Border Civic Association
  • Durban Housing Action Committee
  • Joint Residents’ Action Committee

Student & Teacher Organisations

  • South African National Students’ Congress
  • National Union of South African Students
  • Northern Transvaal Students’ Congress
  • Border Students’ Congress
  • National Education Coordinating Committee
  • National Education Union of South Africa

Note: Curries Fountain Stadium, which forms part of the Durban Liberation Route, was the location of a number of the UDF’s mass meetings during the 1980s

Images courtesy of and

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