Former ANC Youth League (ANCYL) leaders Julius Malema and Fikile Mbalula had it easy compared to its current crop of leaders, who inherited a "fragile ANC", outgoing secretary general Njabulo Nzuza said.
His words formed part of his reflection on his time in office and the ANCYL's 74 th anniversary, which it marked at the beginning of the week.
In a conversation with News24 on Tuesday, Nzuza said he was grateful the organisation, which he has led along with others, had not died under their watch.
"It had not died in our hands as anticipated by some; that within a few months in office this entire thing will collapse and be non-existent," said Nzuza.
The league, which is often blasted and ridiculed, even by some leaders in the ANC, has previously been accused of being out of touch with its mother body and its leaders of behaving like henchmen for some in the political party.
"We came in at a very difficult period, when the ANC was under attack and every time you would come out and defend the ANC, it was unpopular and sort of feeding the narrative that these people were here to defend certain leaders in the organisation. But the ANC was fragile," he claimed.
Nzuza also defended the ANCYL leadership against the perception that it was not vibrant and never took a confrontational posture against its own leaders on key issues.
"If you look in terms of the Mbalula and Malema [periods], the ANC had a two-thirds majority. It was fully in charge and society was 100% behind the ANC. They had space to question the ANC on public platforms," said Nzuza.
"Ours was a very special kind of responsibility under different kinds of conditions," Nzuza said, defending the leadership collective.
He said previous leaders did not have to come in and stabilise a defunct organisation.
Nzuza, president Collen Maine, deputy president Desmond Moila, deputy secretary general Thandi Moraka and treasurer general Reggie Nkabinde - who is hoping to replace Maine as president of the league - were elected into the ANCYL's top five in 2015 following an interim body led by former youth league leaders.
The ANC disbanded the league's executive in 2013 following its expulsion of now EFF leaders Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu the previous year.
"Can you imagine if you had an ANC Youth League that sided with the opposition during those times and saying there are problems in the ANC? What sort of harm would that do to the ANC? It would have caused greater harm," he told News24.
It's not perceptions that matter but growth
Nzuza argued that, while Mbalula and Malema might have been seen as more dynamic leaders, his leadership collective achieved more.
He said although the generational mix issue was high on Mbalula's agenda, it did not find expression with the older members of the ANC.
"They went to a national general council (NGC) meeting in Durban, there was a media frenzy around them and they were demanding a generational mix Yet, what did they come out with? Some of them left that NGC to go sit at a shebeen because the ANC rejected their approach," said Nzuza.
He added that current league leaders managed to get the ANC to agree to make sure 20% of its leadership collective was made up of young people and has since agreed to have 40% of those it deployed to government to be youth.
The outgoing leader shared similar sentiments about Malema, whose tenure saw the league adopt a programme of "economic freedom in our lifetime", but failed to convince its mother body that this was the way to go.
"What change did the ANC adopt immediately after that? None. His views were rejected because of the manner in which he was pitching those views, [it was] as if he was fighting the ANC," said Nzuza.
"We went inside the ANC, and when it came out of [the national elective conference at] Nasrec, it said expropriation without compensation," added Nzuza.
ANCYL an internationalist movement
Nzuza said he was proud that the current leaders of the league had moulded it into an "internationalist organisation" that appeared and spoke on numerous platforms across the globe, having just sent off another delegation of young people to China on Monday.
"It came to me that wow, there has been growth in the ANCYL," said Nzuza.
He said he realised during the league's 74 th birthday that its mission had evolved from assisting the ANC in the fight for liberation against an oppressive regime to now, when the focus is on engaging with like-minded organisations across the globe.