Q&A with UDF's Popo Molefe

Popo Molefe, former national secretary of the United Democratic Front, at a rally in Soweto, South Africa, in February 1985. (Reuters)

Popo Molefe, former national secretary of the United Democratic Front, at a rally in Soweto, South Africa, in February 1985. (Reuters)

The United Democratic Front celebrated the 30th anniversary of its landmark launch last week. The organisation worked to unite South Africans across parties and race in the fight against apartheid and played a pivotal role in the struggle. It included leaders like Allan Boesak, Frank Chikane, Helen Joseph, Trevor Manuel, Albertina Sisulu, Desmond Tutu, Jay Naidoo, Mosiuoa Lekota and Saleem Badat.

 The Mail & Guardian spoke to one of the founding members, Popo Molefe, the former national general secretary of the UDF who went on to become North West premier, and is currently the executive chairperson of Lereko Investment Holdings.

What was the most important role played by the UDF during the liberation struggle against apartheid?
The UDF brought together people from various class, racial and gender backgrounds who shared the goal to resist the oppressive laws of the apartheid government and bring about liberation. It mobilised the masses behind a united effort to resist the National Party 

How did you get involved with the UDF activities?
At the time of the formation of the United Democratic Front, I was a member of the Soweto Committee of 10 and the Soweto Civic Association. I took active part in establishing community-based organisations, youth and women’s organisations in the Eastern, Western and Northern Transvaal, Northern Cape and Northern Free State. Already, in 1981 at the national conference of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), in which I participated as a speaker, I called for the formation of a front of organisations to resist apartheid. 

 At the beginning of 1983, a few of us had meetings in the Transvaal and that culminated in the formation by several autonomous organisations of the Transvaal UDF region during May of that year. Valli Moosa and I were elected co-secretaries of the Transvaal UDF. The Natal UDF was formed in June followed by the Western Cape UDF.  Later, comrades from Natal and Western Cape (Archie Gumede, Griffiths Mxenge, Zac Yacoob, Pravin Gordhan, Yunus Mahomed, Curnick Ndlovu Trevor Manuel, Oscar Mpetha, Frank Chikane,Valli Moosa, Moses Chikane, Eric Molobi, Amos Masondo, George Du Plessis , Professor Ismail Mahommed et al) established the national interim committee of the UDF, of which I became a member. The national interim committee organised the national launch of the UDF at which I was elected national general secretary.

My responsibility as the national general secretary was to implement and coordinate the programme of the UDF and to promote the building of more organisations and to draw into the UDF those which were still not part of it. In this context, I was involved in creating new UDF regions in the Northern Transvaal, Northern Cape, Northern and Southern Free State, Eastern Cape and the Border region. 

Fundamentally, my involvement in the UDF was motivated by a quest for justice and the restoration of the human dignity of the oppressed. I had a deep desire to create a platform that allowed for active participation by the ordinary people and a cross-section of society in shaping their own destiny. 

Research – including internal research conducted by among others ANC researchers like Tony Trew – shows that the ANC is losing touch with the masses including some sectors of the society. During the apartheid years, the UDF was able to mobilise all sectors of society and appealed to everyone. How did you get it right?
The frustration with apartheid cut across race, gender, age and class. People were desperate for freedom. They were willing to give of themselves wholly to the fight for their liberation.  

The declaration of the UDF provided the people with a set of minimum demands which did not require organisations forming the UDF to buy into a uniform ideology and internal structures. It tolerated a plurality and diversity of views. This modus operandi made for a tapestry of rich creativity and innovation coming out of communities. The divisive Constitutional and Local Government Reform of the apartheid government, coupled with the ever-deepening hardships such as poor service delivery, low wages, homelessness, continuing land dispossession expressed in brutal rooting out of communities from their ancestral land, the denial of freedom of movement of the people, the exclusion from the economy of the black people, military conscription of the white South African youth into an illegitimate South African Defence Force and state violence against civilians provided conditions conducive for unity. The UDF was accordingly an idea whose time had come.

Political analysts and observers alike believe there is a growing social distance between the ANC leadership and the people. Do you think there is a need to resuscitate the UDF or form another mass-based organisation that will appeal to all sectors of the society?
The UDF was formed to support the ideal of a nonracial, nonsexist and a united and democratic society. The adoption by the UDF of the Freedom Charter in 1987, was an organic development and expression of alignment with the vision and values enshrined in that historic document. It was also indicative of the maturing in politics of the majority of the affiliates of the UDF.  

The unbanning of political organisations, the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, the acceptance by the apartheid regime of the failure of its constitutional reforms and their acceptance that South Africa’s problems would be resolved through negotiations with credible leaders of the majority, meant that the UDF had served its purpose of creating an effective platform to bring an end to apartheid and usher in democratic rule.

During the apartheid years, the UDF was strong and effective in the Western Cape. However, the ANC currently keeps on losing the province in every election. What do you think is the cause of this?  
The situation in the Western Cape shows that the South African democracy is working. However, in a recent media interview Mr Marius Fransman said in the period between 2007 and 2009, the DA in the province got stronger because the ANC was divided. In their own words "the more divided we are, the stronger the DA will get". The provincial leadership team has pledged to unite and work in the best interest of the citizens. 

Both the DA and the ANC have had the opportunity to govern the Western Cape province, albeit through coalitions. The developments there reflect a process of maturing of democracy and the existence of a free market of ideas. It means that from time to time voters make their views known at the ballot. This is an intrinsic element and essence of democracy.  No political organisation is ordained to govern alone forever. Public representatives and political parties ought to work hard and honestly to deserve the support of the citizens.

The UDF was largely led by morally upright individuals like yourself, Albertina Sisulu and many others. However, the same cannot be said about the ANC at the moment because many leaders of the party have become tainted with corruption, political careerism and factionalism. What is your comment?
The ANC appoints as its leaders people the party believes are best able to interpret and implement the vision  to better the lives of all the people of South Africa and uphold its time-honoured values and traditions. The ANC does not consist of infallible human beings. Neither does it guarantee that none of its members will act wrongfully or falter in the course of discharging their responsibilities. 

Stories carried in the media about a few leaders who fail in office should not mar the efforts of the many senior officials and members of the organisation who conduct themselves appropriately. Equally, the wrongs of individuals must not be elevated to the wrongs of the ANC as an organisation.  The ANC, of which I remain a member, is committed to its values and principles. However, what appears to be hesitation on its part to take decisive action against individuals who bring the movement and the country into disrepute, might create the impression of acquiescence. 

Ahead of the 2014 general elections, ANC members and supporters claim that they are finding it difficult to campaign for the ANC because of its soft stance on corruption [Nkandlagate, Guptagate, the arms deal and so on]. What is your comment?
To my knowledge none of the three issues mentioned above were swept under the carpet. All of them were or are still being addressed or investigated.  We have witnessed recently action taken against specific individuals. There are legal mechanism and internal party processes to deal with the challenges of impropriety.

The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal will hold what they’ve described as "massive rally" in Durban's Sugar Ray Xulu Stadium to commemorate the UDF’s 30th anniversary, at 2pm on Friday. Molefe will deliver a keynote address and, along with other ANC leaders, visit the home of former UDF stalwart, the late Archie Gumede.

Charles Molele
Verashni Pillay

Charles Molele

Charles Molele is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. Charles joined the paper in 2011. He has covered general news, court and politics for the past 19 years, and also worked as a senior reporter for the Saturday Star, Sunday World, ThisDay, Sunday Times and is former politics editor of the New Age. Charles's other career highlights include covering Kenya's violent general elections (2007/08), Zimbabwe’s sham general elections (2008), Mozambique's food riots (2010) and the historic re-election of US President Barack Obama (2012).
  • Read more from Charles Molele
  • Verashni Pillay

    Verashni Pillay is the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Laudium, Pretoria, learned her trade at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, spent a spell in Cape Town as an online journalist, and now loves living in Jozi. Her interests are broad but include a focus on politics and multi-platform storytelling.
  • Read more from Verashni Pillay
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