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Practices of Self-Organisation in 1980s South Africa

In this transcribed talk, Russian academic Daria Zelenova explores the experiences of radical militants in 1980s South Africa and the implications of events from that time for contemporary protest. Her presentation was originally given at a workshop hosted by the International Labour Research & Information Group and the Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Centre in Drieziek extension 1, Orange Farm township, south of Soweto, South Africa, on June 24th. It was attended by a hall full of community and worker activists, including veterans of the big rebellions of the 1980s and originally published by Zabalaza.

The talk that I’m going to present today is based on a research project that I carried out with my colleague Vladislav Kruchinsky in South Africa in 2011-2013. The aim of our research was to analyse and explore the methods and practices of self-organisation from below that existed in the crucial 1980s period of the anti-apartheid struggle.

The vast majority of the material that’s written about that period of struggle is devoted to the role of the large, institutionalised anti-apartheid forces, such as the United Democratic Front (UDF), an umbrella body for the community-based anti-apartheid organisations including church and sports groups, which was formed in 1983. A large part of it also focuses on the African National Congress, which is presented in the dominant narrative of the ANC as the leader of the anti-apartheid struggle.

My aim, with Vlad, was to look beyond these big organisations, and to focus on communities’ struggles, viewed through ordinary people’s stories. When we started our research, we understood that we wanted first-hand information, from the participants in the struggles. This is social history, meaning that it looks at the view from below, with the people interviewed themselves active participants in the stories they tell. We conducted extensive interviews with active members of the communities, township residents, from those days. We hope to finish this project with a book, which will be a compilation of the interviews.

History From Below

The interviews that we collected shed light on very important local histories of the politicisation of, and resistance by, working class and poor people, against economic inequality and the oppression of the racist apartheid regime. We learned how ordinary township residents, not necessarily activists, but ordinary aunties and school pupils, mothers and grandmothers, and trade unionists, reclaimed power at the level of their yards, their blocks, their street, their zones, and eventually, of the whole township. We learned how new spaces based on a relatively horizontal distribution of power emerged, and what challenges this “horizontality” faced.

In addition to the interviews, we did work at two major archives of South Africa, which have collected material from the 1980s struggles. These are the Wits Historical Papers at the University of the Witwatersrand, and the South African History Archive next to the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg. We analysed original leaflets, brochures, minutes of meetings, posters and newspapers from the 1980s.

I am going to present some of this material today. The main question in our research was: Why social self-organisation by the working class and the poor in South Africa, based on the principles of equal distribution of power, and often with a very horizontal or flat structure, became an idea that could inspire masses around the country, and worked as a practice that helped dismantle apartheid?

I’d like to start with why we focused on the 1980s. We do so for two reasons.

First of all the 1980s was a crucial period in the anti-apartheid struggle, with mass resistance coupled to unprecedented levels of social and political self-organisation. That was the time when the “notions of ‘popular democracy,’ ‘people’s power,’ ‘self-empowerment’, ‘democracy from below’ were all introduced as new ideas and practices into South African politics” (in the words of UDF veteran Raymond Suttner, in an interview).

A careful analysis of the 1980s in South Africa shows that the dismantling of the apartheid regime became possible because the process of resistance was dispersed through the whole country, through countless acts of local disobedience, of consumer/ transport/ school boycotts, of strikes and stay-aways – or community-based general strikes. This dispersed resistance built on, and gave rise to, alternative practices of self-governance by ordinary people.

Secondly, a very important feature of that period was a democratisation of movements, and the birth of a radical democratic culture. This included changes at the personal level. It was in the 1980s that, for the first time, issues like gender inequality, of freedom of choice of a partner, and of domestic violence were openly raised on a wide scale, and when it became possible to openly oppose “traditional leaders” like chiefs and kings, something noted by analysts like Michael Neocosmos.

A major political event in that decade was the creation of the UDF as an umbrella structure capable of uniting a huge number of the already-existing organisations throughout the country, and of spurring more organising. The UDF was contested, but over time, it came to identify itself strongly with a radical vision of change.

Protest meeting of the UDF in Johannesburg. Mar 1st 1985.

A “People’s Democracy”

Leading UDF figure Morphe Morobe commented in a talk called “Towards a People’s Democracy” that a “democratic South Africa is one of the aims or goals of our struggle.” But he also made it clear that democracy is the means by which we conduct the struggle:

The creation of democratic means is for us as important as having democratic goals as our objective. Too often models of a future democratic South Africa are put forward which bear no relation to existing organisations, practices and traditions of political struggle in this country. What is possible in the future depends on what we are able to create and sustain now. A democratic South Africa will not be fashioned only after transference of political power to the majority has taken place.

The UDF outlined a much more radical vision of democracy than what South Africa ended up with in 1994. Morobe continued “Our democratic aim… is control over every aspect of our lives, and not just the right (important as it is) to vote for a central government every four to five years.” He stressed that “The creation of a democratic South Africa” was not something to be left for the future, or delivered from above; it “can only become a reality with the participation of millions of South Africans in the process – a process which has already begun in the townships, factories and schools of our land,” through the yard and street committees, civics, student groups, unions and other formations that had emerged.

As the 1980s progressed, this vision became a practice, both in daily struggles, and when, as we will see, some organisations involved in resistance started to replace the state with what were called “organs of people’s power.” In some cases, for example, street committees helped run public services, youth organisations created parks, and people created self-defence and anti-crime patrols.

Unions and Townships

It is necessary to identify the two most important prerequisites for the emergence of the UDF. First, from the middle of the 1970s, after the famous 1973 Durban strikes, the independent trade union movement was gaining serious strength: mass strikes and factory struggles took place in the country, workers established democratic control of their unions and created strike committees. The spread of the democratic culture and organising approach of these unions, especially the Federation of South African Trade Unions formed in 1979, played a major role in mobilizing ordinary people, and in enabling the development of so-called “organs of people’s power” outside the workplace.

Secondly, in the townships where, since the late 1970s, there were conditions of socio-economic decline in the context of capitalist crisis, there was the emergence of new organisations in the forms of street committees and action committees and “civic” associations.

While the unions raised issues around wages, transport, racist treatment and so on at work, the new community structures’ task was to fight for the everyday social needs of the residents: decent housing, lower rents, electricity, against evictions, etc. As with the unions, these struggles raised larger issues around the distribution of wealth and power; and, as with the unions, these structures enabled people to take more and more control over their daily lives, and to start to build a counter-power against the government – resisting the state, and sometimes later replacing some of its functions.

The socio-economic situation of township residents was very difficult. In conditions of growing unemployment, rising prices, and low-quality education and municipal services, and the under-development of the townships, issues like employment, housing and services were quite sharp. It must be remembered that, in many townships, there was little access to electricity, or to water in the home, sewerage systems often involved public toilets or the bucket system, and there were massive housing backlogs.

In this situation, women and children often played a key role in struggles. Even non-politicized housewives were easily mobilized into the struggle for local change. One example comes from the Valhalla Park Civic Association, which was formed by the residents of the Coloured township of Valhalla Park in the Western Cape to address evictions. Auntie Jane Roberts, who took part in this from 1984, told us that “we started to see what was happening to the people in the communities, and we decided as a community, ‘Okay, we gonna to be built up now.’” The Civic reconnected water and electricity that was cut off by the authorities, and put people back into the houses if they were evicted.

Another activist, Auntie Gertie, helped build the Valhalla Concerned Residents Association, after she was evicted, with her three little children. After she had some success in fighting evictions, she started to help others in her area. She told us her story of involvement in the struggle:

I grew up in poverty and I used to live here, and there, and all around. As my father was working, he wasn’t able to look after me as a child; I had to go to school and I lived by one auntie, and then by another auntie, and so, I travelled around as a child. And at the age of, I think, 10-11 my father got married to another woman and … then I went to live with the stepmother and she was [not] kind to me.

I grew up, there was nobody I could have gone to and say, ‘My [eye] is sore,’ so I grew up very independently…. So I became very independent, do everything on my own. And in the 1980s, I became a single mother: I gave birth to my son and not married; and then a daughter, and then another daughter; and then I had three children. And I became a single mother then. And yes, there was nobody to go to: I just had to find my own way, with the little money I earn, I had to find my own way. Through that I’ve become into struggle…. I have been evicted by the City of Cape Town. Not twice but thrice. That is how I became involved in the civic organisation.

She continued:

There were three of us… We called people to the public meeting, and we spoke with the people and said we’re forming this organisation named Concerned Residents, we are … going to assist you – and who of you people is prepared to join us?

Children of Ekuvukene, a “resettlement” village in Kwazulu “homeland,” Natal. Millions of black South Africans were forcibly resettled in such villages called black “homelands” after 1948, the largest forced movement of people in peacetime history. Jan 1st 1982.

Another respondent, Trevor Ngwane, who was active in the Jabavu branch of the Soweto Civic Association in the 1980s, remembered how this civic operated:

…we met in people’s houses, we had one meeting a week… We would rotate, this time in this house, and this time in this… For example we would hold a meeting in a priest’s place, because he’s respected, or in a teacher’s place, or in a trade unionist’s house. And then there was no membership, and the issues we discussed were problems in the townships, the lights, we talked about the end of apartheid, we talked about children’s education, or someone died, and they don’t have anybody to bury him [about raising funds].

The call for such meetings was often made door-to-door, meeting the neighbours personally, or writing small notes and leaving them under the front door of the house.

Committees and Civics

The civics were, in short, residents’ associations that dealt with the concerns of the people. They took different forms, but the typical civic had an executive committee, which comprised a chairperson, vice-chairperson, a secretary and a treasurer. The leaders would often be elected for three years, but they could be re-elected or recalled, upon the demand of the majority. The duty of the leaders was to report back to the communities in which they were based. A very important point is that the leaders were parts of these communities, facing the same problems as other residents. As Aunty Jane put it: “We were in the community fighting for the community,” so “We can’t as the leaders say to the community we want that or we demand that… they are using us and they tell us what to do.” A culture of accountability was revealed itself in procedures during the meetings, in regular report-backs, and in continual communication with the residents.

The chairpersons’ functions were basically those of co-ordination, calling meetings, and organisation and preparation for campaigns. The idea of leadership as “serving the community” went hand-in-hand with a sensitive and careful attitude towards the decision-making process.

Civics interacted in different ways with more localised forms of self-organisation like block, yard and street committees. Like the civics, these were formed to tackle specific problems, such as high rentals, poor electrification, bad housing, the bucket system and crime. In contrast to civics, where leadership tended to be dominated by more educated people, fluent in English or Afrikaans, with some political background, these local committees centred on ordinary township residents, often without political experience or organising and facilitating skills. Like civics, these committees emerged in the late 1970s and proliferated in the 1980s.

In some cases, they were separate from the civics, and were more spontaneous local groups. The strongest and most democratic civics, however, were built on a solid foundation of yard, block and street committees. In these cases, the civic actually consisted of the committees operating in the township communities. One interesting example comes from Belville on the outskirts of Cape Town in the early 1980s, as reported in Grassroots newspaper:

The people of Belville realized that they needed a strong organisation to fight for their rights. This meant that the organisation had to represent everyone in Belville. So house meetings were held in all streets! And the people from each street elected a street representative. There are some of the duties of a street representative:

  1. The street representative must know all the problems of the people in the street.
  2. They must represent the needs of the street at representative committee meetings.
  3. They must report all representative committee meetings to their street.
  4. The representative committee is building unity in the area because it represents all the streets.
  5. The street reps must not work alone, but with the help of all the people in the street.

So the street rep is the link between the rep committee. In this way the people are working together to build a strong organisation.

Meeting of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Johannesburg, Jan 1st 1985.

Then the street representatives in Belville joined the larger Cape Areas Housing Action Committee, which covered a number of neighbourhoods and townships, and fought bad housing conditions. By coming together in CAHAC, people could share their experiences and find solutions to common problems and work together in common actions. And through street committees, set up by ordinary residents with mandated delegates, ordinary people could control the civic organisation.

Another remarkable example comes from Alexandra township in Johannesburg, which was a hotbed of struggle, where radical unionists from the FOSATU tradition played an important role. Moses Mayekiso, a metalworker from FOSATU and a leader of the Alexandra Action Committee, explained how the township was organised in the mid-1980s:

It was the pyramid structure. The people in the yard (because Alexandra is so overcrowded, there are about four houses in one yard, in one house you find there are four to six rooms, and in each room there is a family … that’s four times eight number of people – sharing one tap, outside tap of water, sharing one toilet: you can imagine) … would get together in one yard and create a yard committee to regulate living conditions, so that there will be no conflict in the yard.

Also that yard committee comes together to create a block committee: you put many yards … from that street and that street and that’s the block committee. Then from block committee, there will be a street committee, then area committee – up to the civic. People would come together to elect their leader, every street, democratically raise their hand and people would decide on their leadership.

Media and Education

The 1970s and 1980s were also a time of a vibrant alternative press and media, which provided an alternative to the big business newspapers and the government-run broadcasting system. These helped share news, and ideas, and politics. For example, community-based newspapers such as Speak and Grassroots included numerous discussions about how to include more people into the decision-making process. Special study groups were launched by activists and community leaders in order to share knowledge on popular participation and democratic organisation.

Respondents interviewed also pointed to other structures that emerged to organise people and raise their grievances, sometimes at meetings at people’s houses, and sometimes in public mass meetings. One such experience was shared by Bricks Mokolo, an activist in Orange Farm community, who started to get involved into the struggle in the late 1970s.

In 1985, Bricks was elected a chairperson of the Vaal Parents’ Education Crisis Committee. Education crisis committees emerged as a response to the crisis in education, and drew in children and youth, as well as parents – and, where possible, teachers. It must be remembered that this was a time of massive revolts in black African, Coloured and Indian schools, as well as in the universities, and that youth – including school-leavers, the unemployed, and those who were not studying – played a massive role in committees and civics, as well as education struggles, and in the unions. Class boycotts were common, and youth were in the forefront of clashes with the authorities.

Bricks explained:

…there are challenges facing your community that needs you and your child – everyone – to work together. We faced a lot of problems: houses, education, labour. Now we looked at the education problems, and we said we need parents to get involved into supporting our children at school, and fighting or demanding the education right for our children, and there were demands that were put forward. One of the demands was free education, and one department for free education for all, including blacks.

“People’s Power” Takes Over

The massive township struggles of 1984 to 1986 saw a huge growth in the power of the various organs of people’s power in the townships – block, yard and street committees; civics; student and youth groups; women’s associations; union structures based in neighbourhoods; education crisis committees – and massive de-stabilisation of apartheid local government. As Mayekiso noted, a focus on immediate problems led easily to an attack on the system as a whole:

The conditions that caused the formation of these organisations were bread and butter issues, but addressing these bread and butter issues automatically drives you to politics. “Why the streets are dirty? Why we are not getting houses?” So through these issues people got politicized and conscientised.

Effective township organisations, Mayekiso added, allowed extremely effective protest actions with high degrees of popular support. The formation of strong self-organised bodies made it possible to run massive campaigns:

…at the beginning, when people would meet in the garage or in an open space in someone’s yard, and in the streets openly, [they would] … get trouble by the police. But people defied and met. Not only the structure itself, the committees, but the actual meetings were the organs of people’s power, including the structures themselves…

General meetings, firstly, is where the grassroots democracy belongs, it’s actual people’s power; that’s the main basic organ of people’s power, therefore the main decisions comes from there, like the boycotts: the decision of boycotts would arise out of those meetings, from the grassroots…. ‘We’re not happy with the bus fares’… the decision to protest and to march is made there. If the committees can’t decide by themselves they have to send the idea at the general meeting, if it’s anonymous  – it’s anonymous, or sometimes they vote. If it’s one who is opposed – it’ll be taken to a vote…

Anti-Apartheid protest in the 1980s, by Paul Weinberg

As protests grew, including attacks on state representatives, many areas became no-go areas for the police, and when the army was sent in, it faced resistance. The Black Local Authorities imposed by the apartheid government often collapsed, while councils in Coloured and Indian areas lacked credibility. In many places, organs of people’s power displaced the BLAs. In townships like Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, Suttner noted in a 2004 article, self-organisation reached a peak when “widely representative community elements took control of important aspects of township life and the fleeing of government officials left a vacuum, which the civic structures filled.”

This was the period in which street and civics started to run public services, when youth organisations created parks, and when people created self-defence and anti-crime patrols replaced the police in many areas. This understanding of struggle as self-empowering became central to anti-apartheid propaganda, and was articulated in slogans and concepts like “people’s power,” or “Amandla-Ngawethu.” These reflected the situation that was already happening on a mass scale. In 1986, when organs of people’s power had already emerged in many of the South African townships and when BLAs were falling, the exiled ANC leadership made its famous call for “ungovernability” and “people’s power.” The ANC in exile had recognized the strong potential and possibilities of self-organising, and hoped to use it for the purposes of the party.

The End of the Revolt

The apartheid state responded to the rebellions with repression, using extra-legal forces, such as vigilantes and hit squads, and the mobilisation of the army, expansion of the police, and the auxiliary forces of the homeland regimes. The second State of Emergency in 1986 led to the arrest of more than 20,000 people, and involved the largest repressive operation in the history of South Africa. Police and army violence, including in detention, was common, and by the end of 1986 the state had suppressed (or at least, greatly weakened), many community-based organisations. The UDF was severely restricted in its operations, and a number of high-profile UDF figures, as well as activists like Mayekiso, were charged with treason.

The more intense the state repression, the worse the effect on the ability of people’s power to be successful. The arrest of many of the most experienced leaders also led to structures of accountability being undermined and escalating clashes with the security forces by youth, leading to a militarisation of struggle and a decline in a broader community involvement.

But the apartheid state now knew that major reforms were needed. Efforts were made in the late 1980s to carry out reforms aimed at weakening the protest movement, and to reach out to the ANC. When the transition period started in 1990, the ANC leadership worked hard to establish its hegemony over the community and youth structures and the unions, with the UDF shut down in 1991, many of its affiliates absorbed into ANC wings or into ANC-aligned groups. When the ANC came into power in 1994 the days of “people’s power” were gone, the movements of the 1980s co-opted or closed or sidelined. There was a process of depoliticisation and a move to focus on state power, with the ANC-led state meant to “deliver” to the citizens.

South African police at Alexandra Township, January 1st 1985.

Some Lessons

It is important to note that not everything was perfect in the 1980s. There were power abuses, and important challenges to democratic practices. Some of the civics did not change leaders: this is explained by the domination of charismatic personalities, and, sometimes, the abuse of leadership positions. The fact that participation in any kind of resistance organisation ran the risk of being arrested and charged meant many people were not willing to take the risk of openly participating.

Civics faced challenges of gender and age inequalities: there was a generation gap between elder residents and the leaders of the civic associations consisted basically of youth, who sometimes imposed their will on the others. This could include using violence. There were tensions between civics and unions, in part because the unions wanted to ensure their autonomy and were wary of undemocratic practices in UDF-affiliated bodies. The ANC also exercised a growing influence behind the scenes, and ANC militants were often intolerant of non-ANC voices.

However, the period of mass self-organisation in the 1980s showed the possibilities of the people’s self-organisation and self-rule from below. It illustrated the potential for co-operation between trade unions, community based organisations, and other types– youth, cultural, sports – and unprecedented levels of solidarity. It showed mutual help projects, which created spaces of solidarity and communal support: soup kitchens, sewing collectives, community crèches, anti-crime patrols, defence units, and people’s courts.

The radical interpretation of democracy deserves special attention. In the 1980s, democratic practices, like mass meetings, the accountability of leaders and committees, were important, and people also saw democracy’s value to struggles.

Today, many of the principles of the self-organisation of the 1980s, and the very culture of radical, participatory and direct democracy, with its obligatory and absolute accountability of community leaders, with its special love for long and open meetings, are continued by some contemporary social movements in South Africa. I think that is the legacy of the 1980s, when many people believe that democracy is not an abstract idea, but rather a tool and practice, which must be used by the whole community.

Daria Zelenova is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and a faculty member of the Higher School of Economics in Russia. A further essay by her on the subject of self-organisation in South Africa was recently published in the fall issue of Anarcho-Syndicalist Review

Featured pic: Mourners displaying a banner at at funeral ceremony for those who were killed by the South African police on this year’s International day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, at Langa Township in Uitenhage. The Day is commemorated each year as the anniversary of the 21 March 1960 Sharpeville massacre. UN Photo

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