The UDF had no central organisation planning and directing the protests on a national scale. In general the UDF eschewed violence and opted for a democratic struggle in which access to the masses of the people was critical. Taking up arms or openly advocating the armed struggle would have jeopardised this strategy. It was also in the interest of the ANC to protect the UDF from repression that would have been triggered by clear evidence that the UDF was engaged in armed activity. The UDF leadership accepted that it had most to gain by focusing on relatively peaceful campaigns, although violence often erupted in enforcing strikes or stay-aways.
The UDF suffered considerably from detentions during the state of emergencies imposed in 1985 and 1986. The eastern Cape was the hardest hit, but all regions suffered the detention of leaders. Popo Molefe and Terror Lekota, Valli Moosa, Trevor Manuel and Stone Sizane were among the regional leaders who were detained at different times during the emergency period.
The state tried to tie up most of the leadership through prolonged trials, the one in Pietermaritzburg and the other in Delmas, east of Johannesburg. While the UDF denied any formal alliance with the ANC it used the same symbolism. It had established itself as the major organisation challenging the state.
One of the UDF goals that remained elusive was an alliance with the trade unions, in particular the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu). In 1983 the UDF failed to convince the federation to affiliate to the Front. Fosatu leaders viewed it as being led by a bourgeois group heading up a multi-class alliance, and thus incapable of worker-based solutions to questions of immediate concern to working people.
The creation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985 laid the foundation for better co-operation. Sydney Mufamadi, who became deputy secretary of Cosatu, was a UDF leader. The National Union of Mineworkers, led by Cyril Ramaphosa, had not been part of Fosatu, but now joined Cosatu.
Gradually the UDF and the trade unions reached rapprochement. It was mainly white trade union officials who had insisted on remaining outside a multi-class alliance like the UDF. Elected black leaders never shared their reservations. After the ANC had assumed the status of the major challenger of government it had become ever more urgent for the trade union movement to choose its allies. There was little space or time for the unions to build their own political party. They ran the risk of political isolation if they spurned an alliance with the ANC-UDF. In 1986 a meeting between Cosatu and ANC leaders established common ground on several matters. A resolution committed the two organisations to ‘work together and consult each other in order to establish maximum unity’.
When the government imposed severe restrictions on the UDF and 16 other organisations on 24 February 1988 the Mass Democratic Movement was founded to take its place. It was led by Cosatu, which was more immune to harassment by government.