top of page

Conference for a democratic future

Father S’mangaliso Mkhatshwa ­one of the people chairing the historic Conference for a Democratic Future -stood up to announce the speaker to follow. “The following speaker is none other than … ” But before he could finish, his words were swallowed by the clapping, ululations and whistling of the 4 600 people who were attending the conference.

They all stood up to give a standing ovation, and shouted the “ANC! ANC! ANC!… ” chorus. The people did not need to be told who was going to speak. They knew.

A grey haired man in a grey suit and heavy spectacles stood up to go to the microphone, smiling as the deafening clapping of hands continued. He raised his clenched fist and shouted “Amandla”. The hall shook with the response ­”Awethu”. The man was none other than Walter Sisulu.

Behind him was a huge, colourful banner of black, gold and red emblazened with a bright rising sun, and people marching across a map of South Africa. On it were the words ‘Conference for a Democratic Future’.

On this day, Saturday 9 December, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg was turned into a liberated zone, as thousands of delegates of different political beliefs buried their differences and hostilities to unite against the common enemy -apartheid. They were representing millions of people, and had come to map out the future of the country and to work out a joint programme of united mass action to bring a speedy end to apartheid.

There were delegates from the Mass Democratic Movement, the Black Consciousness Movement, churches, sports bodies, professional and business groups, homeland organisations and other groupings.

There were also 23 representatives from European and American governments-as well as two from the Soviet Union-who were observing the conference.

The gathering filled the huge Old Mutual Sports Hall. Outside, the two marquee tents had TV screens so that the people in the tents could follow what was happening inside the hall. Even with these tents, there was still not enough room for everyone.

Hundreds more stood outside hoping for a chance to get in.

The colour of thousands of T -shirts united everybody in a sea of gold ­from the UDF and AZAPO to the smallest of local organisations. On some of the T -shirts were the names, emblems and slogans of the struggle, and on others the faces of those heroes and heroines ·who had paid the supreme sacrifice.

Even though NACTU withdrew at the last minute, eight unions affiliated to NACTU came to the conference. And when they announced that a press conference would be held to explain why they had attended, the people responded with a thunderous applause of welcome.

It was a pity that the organisations in the newly formed Pan Africanist Movement, the Cape Action League and the New Unity Movement did not attend this historic gathering of the people.


The conference opened on a high note. In their opening speeches, the Reverend Jerry Mosala, a senior member of AZAPO and a theologian, and Walter Sisulu, former Secretary General of the ANC, called for the unity of our people.

In his address, Sisulu spoke about the history of uniting our people. He began with the birth of the South African Native Convention eighty years ago, which met to oppose the proposed constitution for the Union of South Africa.

“In 1911, Pixley Seme proposed the formation of the South African Native Congress. He realised that unity was fundamental to our liberation. He declared: ‘We are one people. Let us forget the differences between Xhosas, Fingos, Zulus and Tsongas, Basuthos and other Natives.’ The following year, hundreds of delegates from all parts of South Africa assembled for the inaugural conference of the ANC. Slowly and surely, the call for unity was being answered by growing numbers of people,” said Sisulu.

He went on to talk about other historic assemblies like the 1927 Non-European Convention, the Congress of the People in Kliptown and the 1960 All-Africa Conference.

“The long struggle for unity has taught us that the technique of divide and rule is the modus operandi of the apartheid state,” Sisulu continued. “Our response is to remain steadfast in the search for broader unity. Indeed, we cannot be satisfied with even the broadness of this conference. Our aim is a greater one. It is to unite the whole of our society.

“We face another formidable task here today. That is to plan our way forward to a democratic future. The history of our struggle demonstrates that unity, without action, is fragile and temporary. Today we will decide on a programme of action. In the course of the actions decided on, we will build a real and permanent comradeship with one another. We will become a broad people’s movement. Our actions will help us mobilise people and win allies even outside of this conference.

“This assembly of delegates, from all the corners of our beloved country, is meeting at a time when developments, both nationally and internationally, require a fresh analysis. It is a time of new opportunities and new challenges.”

In closing his speech Sisulu said: “Our unity is more important than our differences. To bicker now, or to relax in our efforts to obtain unity, will be to throw away the hard-won gains of resistance of past decades. We do allow for the diversity of views, we know we are not the only ones fighting, but we will reject any form of racism.”

Again, after a long silence in the hall, there was the roar of clapping hands. All were happy to listen to these words of wisdom. Others were weeping tears of happiness. They were moved by the speech of one of our greatest statesmen, a true leader of the people.

Two other speakers were Professor Irina Filatova of the History Department of Moscow State University in the Soviet Union, and a Deputy Foreign Minister of Norway, Mr Knut Felotov. Both spoke about the support of their countries for the struggling people of our country and the continuation of sanctions against South Africa.

“This is your day, the people of South Africa,” said Mr Knut Felotov. “Apartheid must fall. There is no future in it. We will keep up sanctions, we will be with you. This is our obligation. We have the right to support you in your struggle to end apartheid and to allow non-racialism and democracy to come in.”


The Conference for a Democratic Future was a conference of all anti-apartheid forces. The idea first came from the UDF National Working Committee Conference held in May 1987. At this conference it was decided that all forces opposed to apartheid should be invited to a massive conference to lay the foundations for unity and bring about the isolation of the regime.

After the UDF was banned in February 1988, COSATU called a special National Congress where the idea of an anti-apartheid conference was further discussed and taken forward. The Anti-Apartheid Coalition Conference was planned for October 1988 in Cape Town. But it was banned the evening before it was supposed to start.

Earlier this year organisations again came together to discuss the possibility of organising another massive conference. They agreed to call it the Conference for a Democratic Future.

A Convening Committee made up of the MOM, the BCM and church representatives was formed. The Committee was in charge of planning for the conference. They also put together what they called “unifying perspectives”. These were seven principles which everyone who attended the conference had to agree to.

The seven unifying perspectives were:

  1. One person one vote in a United Democratic South Africa;

  2. The lifting of the State of Emergency;

  3. The unconditional release of political prisoners;

  4. The unbanning of political organisations;

  5. Freedom of association and expression;

  6. Press freedom;

  7. A Living Wage for all.

It was agreed that the organisations coming to the conference must be associated – both in principle and in deed – with the oppressed and exploited. And they must be committed to the destruction of all apartheid structures and to the unification of our country. They must commit themselves and the people of their country to mass action to end oppression and exploitation.


After the opening speeches, the debates went on in a spirit of unity and everybody participated. Amongst the topics discussed were:

  1. The attitude of our people to the question of negotiations.

  2. Our call to the international community about their role in ending apartheid.

  3. A programme of united mass action to end apartheid.

All the delegates agreed on almost all of the topics presented and on the programme of action. They declared the years 1990 to 2000 to be a DECADE OF MASS DEFIANCE – a decade to finally end apartheid!

There were lengthy debates and discussions on the question of negotiations and all agreed that De Klerk’s negotiations package is unacceptable and that his initiative must be rejected.

The CDF viewed negotiations as another site of the struggle. They argued that there are two possibilities in the struggle to seize power. We either take power through a negotiated settlement or through a revolutionary seizure of power.

In explaining this they said we will only negotiate about the transference of power to the people and not about power sharing. If the De Klerk regime does not want to negotiate about how power is going to be transferred to the people, then the CDF sees no need to go the negotiating table.

The feeling of the conference was that negotiations have been put on the agenda, not by the liberation movement but by the Nationalists and their imperialist allies. Therefore, we must respond. We have to present our position on the question of negotiations.

If we fail to present our position, a document might be written by the imperialist forces and imposed on us ­as happened in Zimbabwe and Namibia.


The Harare Declaration (see the box) was read at the conference. Many participants and the guest speakers made references to this document and finally it was adopted -to loud applause from the delegates.

Debates and discussions went on until late in the night with people actively participating until the end. It was important for them because they were at the conference as delegates from their organisations and they will be reporting back to their organisations.

The conference ended with an important call to all: that the men and women on the streets, in the rural areas and everywhere know and understand the important resolutions of the Conference for a Democratic Future. It is their conference. The national anthem was sung with a deep joy -a joy of coming out of the conference united as one!


On 26 June this year, the ANC issued a “Discussion Paper On Negotiations”. The discussion paper was distributed inside the country to democratic organisations. In July, officials of the MOM met with the ANC in Lusaka to talk about the ANC discussion paper. At the end of their meeting, they brought out a joint document on negotiations.

The document says that all people have the right to determine their own destiny – and that the people of SA and the national liberation movement must be involved in negotiating a settlement with the apartheid government. The aim of the negotiations is to create a non-racial country where all the people will be equal. In this non-racial, democratic country there will be one person one vote.

The document gives five preconditions which must be met before negotiations can take place. These are: the unbanning of the ANC and all other banned organisations, the lifting of the State of Emergency. the release of Nelson Mandela and all other political prisoners, the withdrawal of SADF troops from the townships and an end to all political trials and political hangings.

The document was then discussed on 21 August in Harare, at a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity Ad-hoc Committee on Southern Africa (OAU). The OAU is an organisation of African countries. The OAU adopted the document at this meeting and it has since come to be known as the Harare Declaration.

The Harare Declaration has also been adopted by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The NAM is a group of all democratic countries that are not aligned with the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States of America. These countries include Cuba, Angola, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Nicaragua and Ethiopia. The Declaration was recently presented to the United Nations and accepted, except for one clause.


The following resolutions were adopted at the conference, after being debated and amended. These resolutions will build and strengthen the unity of all organisations opposed to apartheid.


The conference resolved:

  1. To adopt the Harare Declaration and accept the solidarity and support of the Organisation of African Unity and the Frontline States.

  2. To call for a CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY established on a non-racial basis representing all the people of South Africa to draw up a NEW CONSTITUTION for our country.

  3. To call on our people and organisations to mobilise our forces, to organise and intensify the struggle for the creation of a single non-racial democratic South Africa with a single parliament with one person, one vote.

  4. To call on the international community to intensify the isolation of the South African regime and to impose comprehensive and mandatory sanctions.

  5. That real democracy be given to the freely elected delegates of the people.

  6. That only the constituent assembly has the right and duty to define a new constitution as well as the form and social content of a new just society.


The conference resolved:

  1. To call on parents, guardians and students to engage in action which ensures that all schools are open to all.

  2. To set up local committees to monitor and co-ordinate the registration and enrolment process as well as teacher retrenchment.

  3. To build SAC’s and Parents, Teachers and Students Associations and action committees around a programme to get popular control of schooling.

  4. To isolate the Department of Education and Culture, the Department of Education and Training and the education departments in the bantustans.

  5. To deepen the understanding of and action around a democratic education system by setting up development programmes which wiU advance our understanding of progressive teaching methodologies and curricula.

  6. To build a solid, democratic and non-racial national teachers organisation.

  7. To build non-racialism at schools through non-racial sport, social interaction, sharing information and experiences on inequality in education.

  8. To highlight conditions of poverty, housing shortage and lack of educational facilities that students experience. ‘

  9. To start a campaign to unban the restricted National Education Crisis Committee (NECC) and other organisations in the education sector.

  10. To start a nationally co-ordinated literacy campaign.


The conference resolved to:

  1. To intensify all international pressure especially mandatory and comprehensive sanctions.

  2. To identify and combat those who are weakening the sanctions campaign.

  3. To call upon the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international banks to reverse the decision on the rescheduling of South Africa’s debt.


It was resolved that all parties agree to campaign for and use all available means to achieve:

  1. Work for all and humane unemployment benefits.

  2. The payment of a living wage to all workers.

  3. The implementation of all Workers’ Summit decisions including the repeal of the amendments to the Labour Relations Act.

  4. The passing of legislation for a national minimum wage covering all workers in South Africa including the homelands, the agricultural, domestic services and public sectors.

  5. The acceptance of the proposal for changes to the Labour Relations Amendment Act and other labour legislation from trade union federations.

  6. An end to the privatisation of the wealth of South Africa, especially the major state enterprises and services such as the South African Transport Services. ESCOM, the General Post Office and hospitals. 

  7. The acceptance of Private Pension and Provident Funds as only being supplementary to the provisions of an adequate state pension for all the people. 

  8. An adequate unitary Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) and Workmen’s Compensation for all the workers. 


The conference resolved:

  1. To work towards the dismantling of puppet structures of local government and replace them with non-racial and democratic, single and accountable structures of the people and to refuse to recognise or deal with town councillors in any way at all, and to call for their immediate resignation.

  2. To call upon our local structures to start a process of forming single non-racial municipalities by conducting discussions at street, block, zone and township levels and by demanding a common tax base in townships and neighbouring white towns and cities.


The conference resolved:

  1. To campaign for the abolition of the Land Act, the Illegal Squatting Act and other racist laws to ensure an equal redistribution of land and resources to all the people.

  2. To ensure the provision of land for the landless leading to the creation of settled communities.

  3. To initiate a process leading to the dismantling of all bantustans.

  4. To campaign against the isolation of rural communities.

  5. To demand and enforce referenda in all bantustans to confirm popular opinion on a united South Africa.


It was resolved to actively struggle for:

  1. The abolition of the national state of emergency and the Public Safety Act.

  2. The abolition of all repressive laws including the Internal Security Act.

  3. An end to political trials and executions and the release of all political prisoners.

  4. The unbanning of organisations.

  5. Freedom of the press and media.

  6. The ending of state support for vigilantes.

  7. An end to all other forms of repression


It was resolved:

  1. To call on all peace loving white conscripts not to serve in the SADF and to work with the mass of our people in building a non-racial and democratic South Africa.

  2. To demand an independent open judicial inquiry into SADF and SAP and other security force involvement in death squads.


The conference resolved:

  1. To demand the immediate withdrawal of the South African Police, the KwaZulu Police and the Special Constables from areas where allegations of improper conduct have been made.

  2. That the perpetrators of violence be arrested and charged for their crimes.

  3. That disciplinary action be taken against all police officers involved and the immediate suspension of policemen against whom complaints have been lodged.

  4. To call on our people to become involved in the process of bringing about peace locally, nationally and internationally, and expose the culprits of the violence.


It was resolved that:

  1. As one of the preconditions for negotiations there be a moratorium on all executions until the death penalty is abolished.

  2. Christmas 1989 be declared “Christmas against the death penalty”.

  3. The State President be called on to reprieve those currently sentenced to death, as a gesture of goodwill before the start of 1990.


The conference resolved to:

  1. Encourage the democratic movement to actively take up the plight of children in our country.

  2. Encourage the campaign for children’s rights and protection.

  3. Work towards a national day to commemorate all children in South Africa.


The conference resolved to call on all social workers, welfare organisations, community service organisations, religious groups, trade unions, social service consumers and all organisations and institutions concemed with social services to:

  1. Reject apartheid and the state’s privatisation policy in weHare.

  2. Actively work towards dismantling the present welfare system.

  3. Evolve an appropriate welfare policy for a future South Africa.


The conference resolved to:

  1. Establish a National Health Service that is free and accessible to all, centrally planned and democratically controlled and based on the principles of primary health care.

  2. Engage the masses in a process of consultation with a view to drawing up a Health Charter that will reflect the aspirations, needs and demands of the people.

  3. Intensify the defiance campaign against segregated health institutions.


The conference resolved:

  1. That the South African Cricket Union cancel its rebel tour.

  2. That the South African Rugby Board together with the International Rugby Board cancel all coming rebel tours of South Africa in 1990 and all future tours. 

  3. To call upon all sports organisations to uphold and honour the universally accepted moratorium on tours, to and from South Africa. 

  4. To call on all progressive organisations of the people to actively support the initiatives of non-racial sports organisations in their struggle against racist sport in South Africa. 


It was resolved to call on the Liberation Movement to:

  1. Campaign where ever possible for the protection and rehabilitation of the environment.

  2. Develop policies for a post apartheid South Africa which take ecological issues into account.

  3. Foster an awareness of the environment, the problems facing it and the solutions to these problems at grassroots level.


The conference resolved that:

  1. This CDF call upon whites to break away with all apartheid forces, and side with the majority in action to end apartheid.

and that this action take the form of:

  1. Marches by whites from towns into townships as an expression of solidarity with the struggling masses.

  2. Participation in the “one city” campaigns endorsed by this conference.

  3. Involvement in defiance campaigns .

  4. Organisation and initiatives that can carry our vision of a non-racial democratic society to the broadest possible sections of our society.


It was resolved:

  1. To actively oppose all restrictions on the press, especially the media emergency regulations.

  2. To intensify all efforts to defend, build and strengthen the democratic media.


If you would like to print or save this article as a PDF, press ctrl + p on your keyboard (cmd + p on mac).

bottom of page