Lessons from the 1984-85 Vaal Uprising for Rebuilding a United Front of Communities and Workers Today
First published in ASR Journal – edited transcript of a presentation made at the Orange Farm Advice Office
Comrades, the talk I am giving is based on a paper that I have written. The paper is a work in progress. I am hoping that, through the discussions we will have, you will give me some direction. I can see some of the dots that can be connected, but I am missing some. The written paper is called “Asinamali! Rebuilding a united front of communities and workers: #GraveFeesMustFall, neoliberalism and the 1984-1985 Vaal Uprising.” It’s a big title but we’ll unpack it.
When we talk about people’s power we are not thinking about putting our leaders into the very same structures. We do not want Nelson Mandela to be the state President in the same kind of parliament as Botha. We do not want Walter Sisulu to be Chairperson of a Capitalist Anglo-American corporation.
So said a United Democratic Front pamphlet called “Building People’s Power” that was produced in the 1980s. It continued, “We are struggling for a different system where power is no longer in the hands of the rich and powerful. We are struggling for a government that we will all vote for.” The UDF, formed in 1983, was a coalition of anti-apartheid community, church, worker, youth, sports and other groups. Along with forces like the “workerist” Federation of South African Trade Unions it played a key role in resistance.
What the UDF wanted sounds like almost the exact opposite of what actually happened: more than 20 years later, it is not Sisulu who is chairperson of Anglo-American Corporation, but the ANC’s Cyril Ramaphosa, the Butcher of Marikana, who is a shareholder on the capitalist Lonmin Corporation. Even though people have the right to vote now, fewer and fewer people are actually voting because they don’t get what they vote for; and power and wealth are still in the hands of the rich and powerful.
What went wrong, and what lessons we can draw? What are some of the similarities between the 1980s and today? What is the way forward?