Three decades of struggle for people’s power
The 20th August 2012 marks the 29th Anniversary of the founding of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and as we approach this historic milestone we are confronted with the most fundamental questions that the mass democratic movement sought to address. A UDF poster dated 1985 says: “Forward to people’s power.”
Nearly three decades later this simple call underlines the relevance in the Western Cape of mobilising communities and community structures in an environment that has become increasingly hostile and alienated and begs the question: “What must be done to mobilise and restore people’s power?”
The DA government in the Province and City of Cape Town continues to pursue a policy perspective that entrenches white privilege over all else and that alienates people from making decisions about their lives and future. This is reflected in its prioritisation of spending on necessities like bulk infrastructure, delivery of basic services, community safety and social services.
Nothing epitomises this crass neo-apartheid authoritarianism more succinctly than its war on the NGO and CBO sector and its draconian closure of community advice centres, as well as small business advice offices (Red Door) and the Provincial Development Council.
In the face of widespread service delivery protests across the province, the DA government chooses to witch-hunt rather than do the most obvious: Listen to the people and attempt to understand their frustrations, anger and concerns. The past few years of DA rule has underscored the need and relevance of a return to UDF style and substance of broad community participation and mobilisation.
One only has to reflect on the kragdadigheid (forcefulness) of the responses to the protests against open toilets in Makhaza, the land occupations in Hangberg, the overcrowding of schools in Grabouw and backyard dwellers of Tafelsig to mention but a few to understand the lack of empathy, understanding and solidarity with the poorest of the poor.
Images of the UDF evoke deep emotional sentiments but it also serves as a timely reminder that if all else fails people can and will rely on their own abilities to rise in protest and mobilise for change. Che Guevara put it more lucidly when he said: “We do not liberate people, the people are their own best liberators…”
This reality seems to escape the DA in its duplicitous attempts to hijack struggle symbols, slogans and icons in an attempt to rebrand and legitimate itself. The UDF was as much an organic response to apartheid repression as the current protests are legitimate expressions of communities’ frustrations with a DA government that not only refuses to listen but systematically entrenches the regime of white privilege.
The irony is that even in poor areas where the DA garnered the highest number of votes on the day, they ride roughshod over the basic needs, concerns and frustrations of communities – the Tafelsig backyard dwellers is a case in point as is the Chappies protest. This level of arrogance in the face of rising community dissatisfaction and protest is cause for concern and will ultimately be the undoing of the gross arrogance of the DA government. As the saying goes “arrogance precedes a fall.”
One of the fundamental pillars underpinning the success of the UDF as a vanguard of people’s power was its ability to make every community a site of struggle whilst simultaneously building a bridgehead that draws in the broadest spectrum of community structures and organisations behind a unifying call: Forward to people’s power.
The DA government’s arrogance is nowhere more apparent than the recent saga over school closures. It seems to entirely escape them that in a participatory democracy consultation must precede decision-making and that communities must have a say in matters such as those affecting the fundamental right of their children to a basic education; the financial implications and social impact of decisions; the safety and well-being of learners.
Unlike the UDF style of empowering communities to be active determinants of their own destinies, the DA government seems to dwell under the illusion that they can unilaterally exercise baasskap (dominant master-like) make decisions and foist those decisions – no matter how well considered and empirically grounded – down the throats of lame-duck communities.
That age is long gone and it behoves good governance and best practice in a democratic order that community consultation reigns supreme. Perhaps it is an opportune moment to remind the DA government of the struggle slogan: “Nothing about us without us!”
How shall we then commemorate the end of the third decade of the founding of the UDF? Perhaps the answer lies in the very question. We must unite community structures, organisations and civil society to be vocal on issues that affect them as a means of returning power to the people.
We must build a democratic culture in our organisations, structures and all facets of community life including and especially holding those in high office to account for every aspect of governance and power.
As we commit ourselves towards building and protecting our young democracy we must strengthen the collective front that drives the vanguard of people’s power: Street by street; area by area; voting district by voting district; ward by ward; zone by zone; and region by region.
Marius Fransman is ANC Western Cape chairperson and Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation