Children of the revolution

2012-01-07 09:40

The noisy, rebellious youth have always operated at the sharp edges of the ANC.

In these short portraits we examine how generations of young leaders propelled the ANC to the next stage of struggle in keeping with the spirit of their time.

A man of courage

By the time the SA Parliament scrapped the Representatives of Natives Act in 1936, which allowed 11 000 blacks to vote for three whites to represent them in a whites-only legislature, the political exclusion of blacks from political power in the land of their origin was complete.

Africans could no longer leave politics to the mission school-educated elite who dominated the ANC and keep jiving to the sounds of Count Basie’s big band and home brewed marabi sounds, or indulge in their fearful admiration of gangsters in their two-tone shoes, as they had done for much of the early 20th century.

Besides, the elite’s preferred style – periodically sending deputations to imperial England to plead for the colonial overlord’s intervention against a series of racist laws against the majority – was not working.

Stories emerging from young black men conscripted in World War II, of scared and humbled whites, further radicalised the freedom movement in South Africa: whites bled, after all.

The ANC Youth League’s founding at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Johannesburg in 1944 was informed by urban realities: exploitation in the factories, subjugation and dehumanising conditions in the city’s slums.

The Congress’s new Youth League was fed-up with what it saw as the cap-in-hand politics of the party’s “gentleman” founding fathers.

Anton Muziwakhe Lembede, the league’s first president, was one of the party’s earliest and most eloquent thinkers on African Nationalism and how to make the ANC a more radical, mass based organisation.

Writing in the first manifesto of the Youth League in March 1944, Lembede noted that the ANC was in decline, becoming “an organisation of the privileged few?.?.?. some professionals, small traders, a sprinkling of intellectuals and conservatives of all grades?.?.?. a movement out of actual touch with the needs of the rank and file of our people”.

Lembede and his deputy, AP Mda, persuaded their fellow youths – among them Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe and Walter Sisulu – and later ANC seniors, to adopt what came to be known as the 1949 Programme of Action, which called for mass action and public disobedience.

Lembede and Co were deeply informed by radical African-Americans of the time, such as WEB du Bois and Marcus Garvey, who in varying degrees preached pan-Africanism.

A devout Catholic and thinker, Lembede was teaching from age 21 while completing a master’s in philosophy.

His credo of personal sacrifice as a central lever of radical change, would have been totally at odds with the bling aspirations of the present day youth league.

“We are not called to peace, comfort and enjoyment, but to hard work, struggle and sweat,” he wrote. “We need young men and women of high moral stamina and integrity; of courage and vision.

We have to develop a new type of youth – not the pleasure-loving, frivolous, dissolute, light minded type – but youth of stoical discipline, trained to endure suffering and difficulties.

It is only this type of youth that will achieve the national liberation of the African people.”

Lembede did not live to see the Programme of Action implemented. He collapsed and died suddenly while working at his office in 1947. He was 33 years old.

Young lions roar

Coming of age in the 1950s were the first of the ANC’s political animals to be called the Young Lions.

Some had only recently left their rural homes to study and work in the urban jungle, the grand metropolis of Johannesburg.

Reared by the youth league under Anton Lembede’s leadership in the 1940s, this militant new generation, led by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, would catapult the ANC into armed struggle.

1950s South Africa was a place of intense repression.

The Group Areas Act, the Bantu Education Act and the Immorality Act were passed into law during this decade.

The ANC, urged by its youth league, did not take this lying down. The Freedom Charter was signed in Kliptown in 1955.

Inspiration was sought in the independence struggles of several African countries – Libya, Algeria, Ghana, Congo – and the words and deeds of African-American activists such as Malcolm X started to craft a pan-African identity connecting ANC youth to their global counterparts.

The 1950s also marked a cultural boom, born from the fires of repression: when it is against the law to sleep with someone of a different race, or to move freely about a city at night, the most normal activities become political.

There was a flowering of music and literature that found a smoky, intoxicating voice in Sophiatown, the Johannesburg township experiencing forced removals.

Trumpeter Hugh Masekela, novelist Es’kia Mphahlele, composer Todd Matshikiza and writers like Can Themba and Lewis Nkosi, set the tone.

Even Sophiatown’s feared gangsters – The Russians, The Americans et al – took on the sharply dressed gloss of the times: a rebel was a rebel, after all.

It would later be remembered as the Drum decade, so named for the ground-breaking lifestyle magazine that documented the experiences of ordinary black South Africans under apartheid and provided a nexus for the intellectual and social charge of the time.

Sexual behaviour loosened up, moving away from church conservatism and rural upbringing.

It was also a way to give the middle finger to a state that outlawed social or sexual interaction between races. The Young Lions partied hard.

In his book Young Mandela, David James Smith writes that the young lawyer and ANC member Joe Slovo “slept with so many of his comrades wives that it is more a question of whom he didn’t sleep with than who he did”.

Madiba himself was a ladies man of note, with names like Drum pin-up girl Dolly Rathebe and political activists like Lilian Ngoyi and Ruth Mompati popping up on a list of romantic affairs he kept up during his first marriage.

He is also remembered for his extravagant three-piece suits. He enjoyed a good relationship with the Jewish tailor, Alfred Khan, who made mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer’s suits.

The Sharpeville Massacre of March 1960 sounded the end of this era. Sophiatown became Triomf (Triumph) and was settled in by whites.

The ANC and the PAC were banned and driven underground.

Liberation movement leaders, if not already jailed, were on the run. Even the artists de-camped – Masekela, Matshikiza, Nkosi – all went into exile in Europe or the US.

For now, the roar of the Young Lions was silenced.

Generation Xtreme

They lived – and lot of them died – in red or yellow ?T-shirts, jeans and takkies.

The 1980s generation of the ANC youth, the foot-soldiers of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and its hundreds of affiliates in every corner of South Africa, turned protest into something close to an art form.

This was the generation that put the mass into mass mobilisation. Emboldened by the collapse of neighbouring colonial regimes, fired up by campaigns around every imaginable issue, faced with the deadliest repression under PW Botha’s Total Onslaught, they turned everything?– from going to church to playing football to buying cooking oil – into a political issue.

This was the generation that could taste the impending demise of apartheid.

These were the first youth for whom freedom in their lifetime was a very real prospect, rather than a slogan for the long haul; if only they could survive the detentions, beatings and shootings that came with the choices they had made.

This generation understood the power of organisation and collective action and how continual mobilisation and upheaval in the streets, classrooms, factories and chain stores, mixed with sanctions and armed action, could actually bring apartheid to its knees.

The wall-to-wall organisation meant that incredible leaders with an insane variety of skills came up all over the place, making it impossible for the regime to beat them back, despite more than half a decade of emergency rule.

There were orators, strategists, organisers, fundraisers.

There were experts in building organisations and specialists in ungovernability.

There were singers, dancers, poets, preachers and klipgooiers. These were the first youths to flex people power, locking down cities with rolling mass action campaigns which were literally unstoppable.

Big personalities abounded. In the Western Cape there was God’s Mobiliser, Allan Boesak, and arch-plotter Trevor Manuel.

Gauteng could boast the tireless organisational genius, Cyril Ramaphosa. In KwaZulu-Natal, where leaders were killed or detained as quickly as they put their hands up, the Natal Indian Congress cabal pulled strings from the backroom while the legendary Archie Gumede led from the front.

All around were mad poets, some of them really bad ones like Mzwakhe Mbuli. Musical geniuses like Sipho Gumede and Khaya Mahlangu laid down the soundtrack of this final stage of struggle, and crazed visionaries like Sifiso ka Mkame provided the visuals.

Being rooted in something far broader in the organisations they belonged to or led gave the UDF an edge.

This wasn’t just about the non-racialism, it was about the diversity of the pool of ideas, ideologies and issues that drove them.
 
Liberal suburban grannies marched side-by-side with shop floor Marxists, liberation theologians and stonethrowers from the township.

This was a generation that was short on ceremony, but big on debate and even bigger on action.

It was a generation capable of incredible acts of courage in the face of a vicious and desperate military machine, but also capable of appalling acts of cruelty in burning “the enemy’’ to death with the feared necklace like a dog in the street.

This was the last generation before freedom, but also the first one to experience it, giving life to the slogan they lived by: “the people shall govern”.


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