/ 22 September 2023


Final Launch Invite2

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the United Democratic Front

The Apartheid Museum will launch TIME TO ACT, the UDF40 exhibition on Heritage Day, Sunday 24 September. The exhibition is a collaboration between the UDF40 National Committee, the Apartheid Museum and the South African History Archive (SAHA). 

The launch will take place at 11am and will be addressed by keynote speakers Thuli Madonsela and Trevor Manuel. They and other speakers will reflect on the contribution of the UDF to the defeat of apartheid, and on the lessons of the UDF for the many challenges our society faces today.

The launch forms part of an Open Day at the Apartheid Museum. The public is invited to attend the launch from 11am – 12.30am and then to see the exhibition, and enjoy the food stalls and music that will be on offer until 5pm. Entrance to the museum will be free of charge all day and all of the museum’s exhibits will be open. 

Posters and other media on display

The exhibition TIME TO ACT reflects on the work and impact of the United Democratic Front (UDF). In a time that predated cellphones and had few PCs, many UDF affiliates used posters, T-shirts, stickers and banners in order to communicate and campaign.  

The posters were usually handmade and printed on silkscreens by community organisations. They were a feature of township and university life throughout the 1980s. The active, creative, community-driven political culture was in stark contrast with current political life. 

There will be 150 UDF posters, stickers and banners on display, alongside two specially commissioned films. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a film exploring the history of the UDF. It presents extraordinary footage, including the young Leila Issel addressing the gathering at the historic launch of the UDF in 1983 on behalf of her banned father, Johnny Issel.

The exhibition is part of a broader set of events commemorating the UDF and celebrating its contribution; and what an extraordinary contribution it was. The UDF was a creative response to the political challenges of the day. 

By the early 1980s, South Africa had reached a stalemate. Political parties were banned, generations of leaders were imprisoned, hundreds of activists were detained without trial — every attempt at resistance was met with brutality. 

But the regime was under pressure. Trade unions were gaining ground in the factories and mines, international sanctions were starting to bite and South Africa was thoroughly isolated. The regime wanted to show it was changing, but without actually giving up any power. 

In 1982 President PW Botha announced a major new initiative, the Tricameral Parliament. Indian and coloured South Africans would be allowed to vote, but only for representatives in racially separate chambers of Parliament, with very limited powers. No votes for Africans. This move was presented as real change, but was in reality an attempt to divide oppressed people and to pretend that progress was being made.  

Uniting the voices of resistance

Activists knew that they had to respond, but how? They came up with the idea of uniting a large number of local organisations that already existed and which were opposed to apartheid. Where there were no organisations, they would form new ones, even if these were small and localised. These would all be drawn together under a common banner — not a party, not an organisation but an alliance — the United Democratic Front.  

And so it was that hundreds, eventually thousands of grassroots organisations banded together to oppose the Tricameral Parliament, to call for the end of apartheid, to make it clear that despite everything, the people would not submit. Churches, women’s groups, youth, trade unions, students and community formations all joined the UDF in a new wave of resistance. It was impossible to ban them all. 

The UDF was a spectacular success, re-energising the struggle and mobilising millions of people. Like hundreds of fish swimming in a single formation, ordinary people had found a way to work together to take on the might of the apartheid government. 

Selfless political culture

In reflecting on the history of the UDF, we are reminded of the power of grassroots organisation and the need for ordinary people to act together. We are also reminded of the selfless political culture of the day. Activists in the 1980s had little to gain from their activism on a personal level, and much to lose. Activism involved tremendous risks and many paid a high price. 

Politics today is characterised by careerism and corruption. For many, it represents a path to personal power and wealth rather than a commitment to society. The history of the UDF stands in sharp contrast to this, and represents a different vision of South Africa. 

The Apartheid Museum is committed to preserving and teaching the inspiring but complex history of our country. Many young South Africans who visit the Museum have only the vaguest idea of the apartheid period. Exhibitions like this one are a crucial part of our efforts to provide a deeper understanding of our past, and are a call to change the future.

Emilia Potenza is the Curator of the Apartheid Museum