Africa In Fact (Johannesburg)

South Africa: Young Lions Roar No More

analysis

The fall of the ANC Youth League: the once proud youth wing of South Africa's ruling party is a shadow of its former self

One of the great ironies of Julius Malema's rapid ascent to political prominence - and there are a few - is that while the young politician, aged 33, has gone from strength to strength, the iconic institution that formed him, the youth league of South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC), has diminished in influence and prestige.

In South Africa's general elections last May, Mr Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) won 6.35% of the vote, despite its short eight-month-old existence. The ANC won the election, as expected, but its youth league (ANCYL) - the organisation that forged the careers of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, as well as Mr Malema, and a pillar of past election campaigns - was invisible.

It has been a rough few years for the league. Once a symbol of how influential South African youth could be, the league has become meek, irrelevant and unable to deal with the challenges facing young South Africans.

The organisation's slide hit rock bottom in November last year, when Judge Tony Mundell of the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg placed it into provisional liquidation over an unpaid bill of R15m ($1.43m).

An events management company, Z2 Presentations, sued the ANCYL after it organised the league's 2008 national conference at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, in the country's heartland, and was never paid.

But the league's significance in South African history saved it from bankruptcy. "I cannot close my eyes to the proud role that the respondent (the ANCYL) has played in the political and cultural life of this country, both historically and currently," Judge Mundell said, explaining his relative leniency. "Its close association with the ANC and the interest that the governing party has in the proper functioning and administration of the ANC Youth League are also issues that weighed with me."

Since its founding in 1944, the ANCYL has played an integral part in providing leadership for the party and influencing strategy. In the early days of the anti-segregation struggle, young leaders like Messrs Mandela and Tambo used their youth league platform to breathe fire into the campaign.

This is no mere figure of speech: at the 1949 party conference, at the urging of the ANCYL, the old guard of the ANC agreed to adopt a more militant resistance, leading eventually to the creation in 1961 of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Zulu for "Spear of the nation"), the party's armed wing.

So what went wrong? Why is this pillar of the liberation struggle teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and irrelevance? What does it mean for South Africa's youth?

Although not evident at the time, the roots of the league's decline can be traced to that very same 2008 national conference, a raucous, ill-tempered affair that culminated in the election of Mr Malema as league president. Even then, Mr Malema was known as a rabble rouser and it was this quality that endeared him to a slim majority of members.

Since the beginning of South Africa's democracy in 1994, the youth league--suddenly without a clear enemy--had been struggling to find a meaningful role. What was its place in the new South Africa? Successive leaders, including Malusi Gigaba, now South Africa's minister of home affairs, had failed to answer this existential question. The league was reduced to little more than a rubber-stamping body.

It took the election of Fikile Mbalula in 2004 to put some fire in the belly of the "young lions", as youth league members are known within the ANC. His fixation with radical economic transformation and alignment with Jacob Zuma, then deputy president, against the president at the time, Thabo Mbeki, gave the youth league a new lease on life. Suddenly, it mattered again.

It was the youth league, in alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), that spearheaded the campaign to elect Mr Zuma as ANC president at the party's 2007 national conference in Polokwane in Limpopo province.

The following year, Mr Malema took the reins from Mr Mbalula and became even fiercer: his stirring rhetoric recalled the militancy of the league's past. His policies - most notably the campaign to nationalise the mining sector - were just as radical. Journalists loved his flamboyant quotes and behaviour. Before long Mr Malema turned into a political heavyweight. Once again, the youth league was shaping ANC policy.

The most striking example of the league's influence came in the wake of Mr Zuma's 2008 corruption trial. Minutes after the judgment absolving Mr Zuma was made public, Mr Malema issued his immortal words to reporters waiting outside the Pietermaritzburg courtroom. "Bye bye, Mbeki, bye bye," he said. This was effectively the first public demand for the recall of President Mbeki. When the ANC's National Executive Council (NEC) did recall Mr Mbeki less than a week later, the youth league seemed to have the power to remove a sitting president.

Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the end for the ANCYL. Mr Malema's aggressive approach and tactics alienated senior leaders within the ANC as well as its allies, COSATU and the communist party.

Mr Zuma, now state president, began to worry that he had lost control of this powerful force he had helped to create. Mr Zuma tried to rein in the league through private scoldings that were leaked to the press and a series of public disciplinary hearings. When he failed, he set about ousting the troubling Mr Malema.

By 2011, Mr Malema had become one of the president's most powerful foes and his increasingly outrageous statements eventually provided a pretext for his removal. After Mr Malema called for regime change in Botswana and compared President Zuma unfavourably to former President Mbeki, the ANC expelled Mr Malema in April 2012.

Mr Malema's expulsion did not harm him. Instead he rebounded and started the EFF. The youth league, however, has not recovered. Mr Malema's deputy, Ronald Lamola, took over, but he never became a convincing leader mostly because he was never given the chance.

At the ANC's 2012 national conference in Mangaung in the Free State, the ruling party took the remarkable decision to disband all ANCYL structures and placed the institution under the management of a task team hand-picked by the ANC's NEC. The "young lions" had roared too loudly, and now they were silenced.

As if to emphasise just how far the youth league had fallen, many of the 24-strong national task team were well over the ANCYL's age limit of 35 years or younger, including convenor Mzwandile Masina, aged 39. Elders now control the league. It was also after Mr Malema's departure that the financial cracks in the organisation began to widen. It was more than the many unpaid bills.

It was also the millions of rands that had disappeared without a trace. The task team, whose job it is to fix the league's finances and rebuild its structures until a new leadership is elected, is still trying to grasp what happened to the league's portfolio of assets--which included investments in mining, property and telecommunications - and how these can be recovered.

Whatever the task team's findings, the future looks bleak for a previously strong and independent youth league. "Given the circumstances from which this task team emerged, what one expects is that the next leadership of the youth league would be subservient ... to the leadership of the ANC...because they will be afraid they will suffer the same fate as [Mr] Malema," political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi told Africa in Fact.

Mr Matshiqi's biggest concern, however, is not with the ANCYL, but with what its demise means for South Africa's youth. A strong ANCYL means that young people have robust representation within the ruling party, particularly on issues that concern them. "The issue is whether the youth league today have the capacity to give effect to the imperative of youth development. And the answer would be 'no', because the youth league has attached itself too narrowly to the internal factional battles within the ANC," Mr Matshiqi said.

"If you look at key indicators such as unemployment, the people who bear the brunt of unemployment and underdevelopment are young people, especially given the fact that in the cohort of people under 35, unemployment is sitting at around 70%," he said. "What is clear to me is that political parties across the board are not very good... at understanding beyond rhetorical commitment the plight of young people, and what should be done about it. And therefore it is young people themselves that must begin to play a more prominent role."

Ironically, this could spell trouble for the ANC's leadership, which has been instrumental in sidelining youth. Just a third of eligible 18-20 year-olds (the so-called "born frees", or those born after the country's first democratic elections in 1994) registered to vote in the 2014 national elections, compared to the national average of 76.7%--an unmistakeable sign of political apathy among the youth.

Young people who want to be politically active are more likely to look outside of the established political space and move towards potentially more disruptive activity, Mr Matshiqi warned. Other alternatives include civil society groups; more radical political parties such as Mr Malema's EFF; and mass action and protest movements, such as service delivery protests, or the ongoing platinum miner's strike, he said.

And who can blame them? Where once the ANCYL was a beacon, providing dynamic, vibrant representation for many of South Africa's youth, now it is a shadow of an organisation, sidelined and coopted by the generations above. If South African youth want a role in shaping their destiny, they may have to look elsewhere.

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