Originally published in Church Times
The Archbishop of Cape Town, Dr Thabo Makgoba, one of the main speakers at the 40th-anniversary celebrations of the United Democratic Front (UDF), expressed pride in being “a child of the UDF”, and acknowledged the organisation’s contribution to the struggle against apartheid, and to his own personal journey. He called for South Africans to be honest with one another about the country’s failings, and work hard to reset the nation’s moral compass.
The event in City Hall, Johannesburg, last Sunday, was held to commemorate the founding of the UDF in Mitchell’s Plain, Cape Town, on August 20 1983, during the height of apartheid. The UDF was the key anti-apartheid movement in the eighties in South Africa, made up at the time of more than 500 grassroots and civic organisations, along with trade unions and religious bodies that played a significant part in the struggle to achieve freedom and democracy in South Africa.
Dr Makgoba attended the UDF’s launch in Cape Town as a young science student. In a video address that, because of technical glitches, was in the end not delivered live at the event but put on its website, he said: “Nothing had prepared us for the dynamism, the energy, the revolutionary power that emerged from that gathering. . . And nothing prepared me for the oratory, the insights, the spirituality and sound theology of Dr Boesak’s famous ‘three little words’ speech.”
The Rev Dr Allan Boesak was a leader in the formation of the UDF, and gave the keynote speech at its launch in 1983. In August 1982, he became the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), in Ottowa, which gave him international standing, and, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu humorously pointed out at the time, made him the spiritual head of the whites-only Dutch Reformed Church, of which most of the apartheid Cabinet were members.
Dr Makgoba recalled: “Many of you will remember it, when, in that inspiring rhetoric, he spoke of the rights we were demanding. He told us that we didn’t have to have a vast vocabulary to understand them. We didn’t need a philosophical bent to grasp them. No, his message was simple, he declared: We wanted all our rights, and we wanted them here and we wanted them now.
“It fired me up, and the fact that Allan Boesak was a cleric helped enable me to work within the leadership of the Anglican student movement.”
Boesak declined an invitation to attend, and was not mentioned by other speakers. Writing to a former UDF secretary-general, Popo Molefe, in early August, he delivered a criticism of the ANC ruling party.
The commemoration started with multi-faith prayers in the tradition of the UDF, and was attended by two former South African Presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, as well as the current President, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist and UDF activist.
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