Hanging from the rafters in Rocklands

Still some echoes of “UDF Unites” three decades later

It’s not a special anniversary. But there’s been an outpouring on social media about the birthday of the UDF for two main reasons. Dr Allan Boesak who now lives in the US, paid a fleeting visit to South Africa this month. And then there’s a very real national nostalgia. South Africans longing for a time when issues were clear-cut. You either supported democracy or you didn’t. And, in the words of that famous struggle t-shirt, you could say with conviction in those days; “We Stand by Our Leaders!”

I sat on the floor, in a corner of the stage almost in the wings, at the Rocklands Civic Centre. The scene was Biblical. I recall being reminded of pictures in religious books of people hanging from the rafters for an opportunity to glimpse the Messiah.

The place was so packed it was probably a fire hazard. People sat on the beams designed to hold up the roof, looking down at an array of struggle luminaries speaking out against injustice.

The singing, speeches and excitement inside at the launch of the United Democratic Front made us almost forget the assembled throng of army, police vehicles, helicopters and security police out in the streets of Mitchells Plain.

At one stage in the proceedings that started early on that Saturday in August 1983 and ended almost too late for my Sunday Times deadline, I took a quick look around outside to check on the positions of the Casspirs, Ratels, other armoured vehicles and cop cars.

Opposite the civic centre I walked past one of the many unmarked cars of the security police. As I was looking around an elderly women came out. She had a tray in her hand with tea. It was in those cups and saucers that you just knew usually resided in the display cabinet for special occasions. The tray had a white lacy cloth. The sugar and milk jugs were covered in lace doilies weighted down by rows of tiny coloured beads. The details became etched in my memory because of the intense anger the scene evoked.

Tea & Cake for the Cops

The old woman walked up to the car with the cops inside, trying to pretend this was not happening. She knocked on the window, balancing the tray carefully.

“You’ve been here for hours I’m sure you must be hungry by now.”

The white cops in the car tried to ignore her but eventually they opened up and accepted the offer of not only tea but also a side plate piled high with koeksisters and samoosas.

When I posted a UDF photo of Allan Boesak and my story about the old lady on Facebook this week there was a flood of responses. Elsewhere on social networks there were many nostalgic recollections about what the United Democratic Front and the Mass Democratic Movement of the Eighties stood for.

Some posts were simply delightful:

Hilton Carlse: “I’ll never forget the power of this: ‘Amandla Awethu, die Caspirs kom nou kerk toe’. Allan Boesak in our church in Bellville. When he was preaching the Caspirs used to stand outside the church gates.”

Rowan Smith: The same thing happened at St Benedict’s house, opposite St Peter’s Priory in Rossettenville in the 1980s. The Special Branch would sit outside and Sister Lucy would present them with a tray of tea, ‘You must be so thirsty sitting here all morning”.

Terry Fortune: ” Hi Terry sorry to call you so late. It’s … do you think you could organize a few artists to perform at our ‘Arts’ gathering hosted by the UDF at Rocklands civic centre. I called Paul Savage. ‘Paul bro,’ I said, ‘I got a call from a lady who asked me if I could get a few artists to perform at a UDF rally.’ ‘It a gig?’ he asked. ‘No it’s a political move bro. Hubba kroon’. ‘Ya,’ he said, ‘I’m game …”

Nobody Will Ever Forget

Ryland Fisher: “32 years ago today I was sitting on the rafters at the Rocklands Civic Centre in Mitchells Plain, witnessing the birth of the United Democratic Front. It was an experience nobody who was there will ever forget.”

Frances Baard, a former president of the ANC’s Women’s League, salutes the crowd gathered to launch the UDF.

Irvin Adams: “Long live Allan long live VIVA. The spirit and founding member of this great organisation. Funny my wife today Joy Adams and I met through the launch of The UDF. Then activist in Logra Civic and yes we are still married. We now live in New Zealand but still use our activism for SA through social change launching a SA radio show here. The years in the UDF have shaped and defined me. I am proud and honoured to have been part of such a great movement.”

Sello Dithebe: “A wave of mass resistance to apartheid that reached every nook and cranny of our land. The solidarity, camaraderie and comradeship tied us, one comrade to another.”

Tyrone Weits: “I was the ‘bodyguard of one of the Anglican preachers from a nearby church. Don’t know his name. He was the one who made photo copies.”

Police Raids

Says Andre Marais recalling the UDF launch on his Facebook page:

“The historic landmark Concert 1985 where Raakwys performed. Rare video footage of the concert was confiscated by police during a raid on their venue in Osterley Road despite the tape being marked Debbie Does Dallas.”


Valmont Layne reponds: “That’s probably why they confiscated it. Ha ha!”

And Andre replies: “Wonder if Bles Bridges Live in Nelspruit wud not have been a better title for that tape‬.”

I remember driving home from one of the pre UDF launches that year with my three-year-old son Ryan Lee. He had patiently sat with me at first and then wandered off to play with some of the other ‘activist’ children. I did not think he paid much attention to ‘The people shall govern’, ‘Long live people’s power’ and other such slogans. But in the car on the way home after being quiet for a while he said with a note of puzzlement:

“Mommy who’s the people?”

By the way I’ve long ago stopped being angry with the old lady carrying tea and cake to the security policemen. Her story now helps me remember that we brought down apartheid with the power of our humanity.

These days I am more angry that it has become so hard to defend our democracy and to hold our leaders accountable.

PS… Dr Allan Boesak paid a fleeting visit to South Africa recently. That day in 1983 his powerful oratory shook the Rocklands Civic to a point that I feared for those people perched on the rafters.

I can still hear him working the crowd – many in the distinctive red and yellow UDF Unites Apartheid Divides t-shirts – into a frenzy with his famous tagline:

“We want our freedom. We want all our freedom. And we want it now!”

Dr Boesak currently holds the Desmond Tutu Chair of Peace, Global Justice and Reconciliation Studies at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, USA.