Before the fall and the rise of the MDM

When more than 30 000 Capetonians took to the streets, transferring people's power from the township to the city centre, it was against the backdrop of Cosatu's factory-based and national political campaigns, which maintained the momentum of insurrection in an era of intense state repression.

The Defiance Campaign of 1989 was a watershed in South African politics. It marked the revival of mass civil protest after the political lull brought about by state repression from 1985. It also signalled the state's failure to crush the anti-apartheid movement, the realisation of which caused the apartheid government to fundamentally alter its approach to the liberation movements.

Although community-based organisations suffered setbacks as a result of state repression and found it difficult to maintain the high levels of mobilisation that prevailed during 1984-1986, they were not completely immobilised due to the depth of public support they enjoyed.

Another, perhaps more important reason for the resilience of the mass movement, was the birth in December 1985 of a giant new union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). Almost immediately after its launch Cosatu embarked on a series of factory-based and national political campaigns, the effect of which was to maintain the momentum of the insurrection that engulfed the country from 1984.

On May Day 1986, 1,5 million workers heeded Cosatu's call for a stayaway in a major demonstration of workers' power that forced the state to recognise May Day as a public holiday.

The following year about 2.5 million joined the federation's May 5-6 stayaway. Also, in August 1987, 340 000 black miners went on strike for three weeks to demand higher wages. This was the first black miners' strike since 1946 and, despite some setbacks, it sent tremors through the boardrooms of the country's mining industry.

In February 1988 the state responded to the surge in union activity by imposing severe restrictions on Cosatu. It also banned the UDF and many of its affiliates. Cosatu openly defied the state's attempted proscription of its activities by mobilising a three-day stayaway in June 1988, which was supported by nearly three million people.

These actions inspired community activists who went on to successfully campaign against the October 1988 local elections. The paltry turnout of less than 10 percent of eligible voters effectively sounded the death knell of the state's limited reform strategy. By this time there was a growing sense that the tide was turning decisively against apartheid.

It was in this context that the Mass Democratic Movement's launch of the Defiance Campaign opened the floodgates of anti-apartheid mobilisation. Aimed initially at disobeying petty apartheid laws the campaign quickly transformed into a mass movement for "people's power".

The September 1989 marches in Cape Town became the focal point of the Defiance Campaign because of the state's colourful but ultimately ineffective efforts at stopping the march to freedom.

When the marchers took to the streets they sent an unambiguous message to the state: states of emergency and detentions would not stop the struggle. Moreover, people's power was transferred from the township to the city centre. From this point there was no turning back.

Also in September, white voters re-elected the National Party in what was the last whites-only elections. But this was an illegitimate mandate of a minority government. A more powerful mandate was now reverberating through the streets of Cape Town and the rest of the country, and the people were proclaiming: "The Purple Shall Govern''. - Noor Nieftagodien

Tide of the rebellion

In All Here and Now: Black Politics in South Africa in the 1980s, Tom Lodge and Bill Nasson look at the developments in struggle politics in the 1980s, with a special close focus on the MDM and the UDF.

The Rebellion Resurgent: 1988-90

"Throughout 1988 it seemed that the government's securocrats had succeeded in driving the United Democratic Front off the streets. But the revolt was merely dormant, not extinguished. The tide of rebellion receded, leaving only unco-ordinated clusters of committed enthusiasts, mainly young people.

"The following year saw a remarkable upswing in the movement's fortunes. The African National Congress may have helped with its call for a 'Year of Mass Action for People's Power'.

"In February 1989 local UDF leaders formed alliances with affiliates of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and organised consumer boycotts and protests against the resegregation of public parks by Conservative Party... The UDF-Cosatu organising an ambitious 'defiance campaign' of civil disobedience to challenge segregated, government-controlled facilities such as hospitals and schools. Important leaders such as Murphy Morobe, Peter Mokaba and Moses Mayekiso... were part of the planning group.

"The movement selected white hospitals as the first target. On August 4 a procession of blacks seeking treatment arrived at the doors of eight government hospitals in the Transvaal and Natal. Warned in advance, doctors and nurses, with the tacit consent of authorities, admitted them.

"The campaign was accompanied by open-air meetings attended by large crowds, again with the apparent consent of the authorities. However, a month after the campaign began, police shot into a crowd in Cape Town, killing at least 12 people.

"In response, three million workers supported a national stayaway; and on September 13, 35 000 protesters marched through the streets of Cape Town, the largest demonstration ever to have taken place in that city's history. Similar processions in smaller towns testified to the extent of the campaign.

"Notwithstanding the police killings in Cape Town, the government's response was relatively gentle. This may have been because the MDM was challenging the authorities in an area where concessions were quite likely to be made. Before the campaign began, the government had given signals that segregated facilities would not be vigorously defended.

Labour, the Church and the African National Congress

"The reassertion of mass politics in 1989 owed much to the trade unions, the activism of the church, and the continuing moral authority of the ANC during the most repressive phase of the emergency...

"The churches and religious associations, particularly the ecumenical South African Council of Churches (SACC), were a reinforcing factor in the revival of mass resistance...

"After the effective banning of political organisations in February 1988, church leaders helped fill the leadership vacuum. They resolved to challenge the government's new regulations by mounting a symbolic march on parliament of 150 priests led by Frank Chikane, Allan Boesak, and Desmond Tutu... Archbishop Tutu was a highly conspicuous figure in the 1989 defiance campaign...''

- Lodge, T. and Nasson, B. All Here and Now: Black Politics in South Africa in the 1980s, University of the Witwatersrand, 1991, pp. 110-114

back to the The Purple Shall Govern memorial page

"Why are they taking over our city? This is our city."
The Purple Shall Govern
The Purple March
Picture: © Obed Zilwa, Trace Images


In this lesson plan, learners will be able to compare personal accounts with a more detached report of the same incident.

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The Purple March - September 2, 1989
Very few photographs of the Purple March survived the police crackdown on the media at the demonstration.
The Purple Shall Govern - A highlight in a low time
A selection of images of the Heritage Project’s memorial to the Purple Shall Govern march.
Audio of The Purple March by people who were there.
Listen to accounts of the Purple March by people who were there, including Philip Ivey, the young protester who turned the jet of purple dye on the police.
360° virtual tour of the memorial at the corner of Burg and Church Streets, Cape Town.
The day The Purple governed Cape Town
In September 1989, during a protest march in Cape Town, police turned a water-cannon filled with purple dye on the demonstrators in an attempt to make it easier to arrest them. But one brave man, Philip Ivey, hijacked one of the cannons and turned the lur