Young Lions must roar again

2018-06-17 12:26
Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba. (Picture: Gallo Images)

Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba. (Picture: Gallo Images)

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The scores of socioeconomic challenges South Africa’s youngsters face underscore the urgent need to rebuild the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) into a radical and vibrant voice.

These voices will drive the structural reforms necessary to unlock the massive untapped economic potential that lies in the country’s overwhelmingly youthful character.

This is a historical mission of the league, which evolved from its founding objective of mobilising the black youth to join the political fight against colonialism and apartheid.

The league’s role, throughout the various phases of the struggle, has always been to give impetus to and inject youthful dynamism and militancy into the ANC’s programmes.

The advent of democracy in 1994 brought about a new political era to which the league had to quickly adapt, or face the prospect of sliding into irrelevance. This adjustment process was compounded by the effect of the sudden graduation of a number of its seasoned leaders to the ranks of the ANC and the need to painstakingly work to rebuild weak organisational structures.

The first serious seeds of the league’s renewal were planted at its 1996 national conference in the form of resolutions including the policy of “cooperation and confrontation”.

This dictated that, while young people would participate in the structures of the post-democratic government, they needed to continue engaging in nonstatutory mass political mobilisation to advance their sectoral interests.

By 2000, the work of rebuilding the league had advanced so much that the league was able to embark on its first major national campaign – against the scourge of HIV/Aids. This was followed, in 2001, by a national campaign of mass mobilisation against racism and youth economic exclusion, including unemployment.

This campaign served the political objective of countering the then nascent antirevolutionary development that saw unemployed and economically inactive league members being used as pawns in ANC leadership tussles.

These and other campaigns went a long way towards reaffirming the league’s mass character and significantly boosted its membership recruitment efforts.

The league’s 2004 national conference, which saw this writer step down as president to be succeeded by comrade Fikile Mbalula, took place in a climate of a brewing ANC leadership succession tussle, which the league presciently warned was going to be vicious and extremely taxing on the ANC and the tripartite alliance – an eventuality it did everything in its power, privately and publicly, to avert.

The removal of Jacob Zuma from the position of deputy president of the country in 2005 saw the league’s focus shift away from its own programmes towards the then burning question of leadership succession within the ANC. Thus was born the politically perverted and ahistorical notion of the league as ANC kingmaker.

The period leading up to and following the 2007 ANC national conference was perhaps the sorriest in the proud history of the league. The divisions plaguing the ANC permeated every one of the league’s structures.

Not surprisingly, the league’s 2008 national conference was marred by deep divisions and disgraceful and thuggish conduct on the part of some delegates. The recognition by the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) of the leadership that emerged from this flawed conference was an incalculable and regrettable mistake.

From that point, the league became the embodiment of crass ill-discipline, factionalism and vulgarity. It became a “problem”, both in its political posturing and its organisational functioning. It was for this reason that the 2012 ANC national conference bemoaned the state of the league, particularly its “increasingly antagonistic relationship with its mother body, seemingly defining itself outside of the political framework of the ANC”.

That national conference instructed the incoming ANC NEC to take “all the necessary measures to ensure that the league plays its proper role and acts within the policy and constitution of the ANC”.

To its eternal credit, though, this same league worked hard to intensify the youth economic participation campaign of 2001, and infuse it with a spirit of radicalism and mass mobilisation that was centred on the call for all-round nationalisation. This helped locate the league at the very centre of the still-evolving ANC programme for radical socioeconomic transformation, which the 2012 national conference adopted.

The process of rebuilding the league after the dissolution of its leadership in 2013 took place in the context of deepening factionalism within the ANC and the commencement of last year’s leadership succession battle.

Not surprisingly, when the league went to its national conference to elect new leaders in 2015, following this dissolution, what it held was not so much a conference of ANC youth as a youth conference about the ANC. This conference merely set the stage for the ANC’s leadership contest last year.

The leadership that emerged from that conference was not freely elected by the youth, but was imposed on the youth by a faction of the ANC leadership.

From the outset, this leadership focused little of its attention on the league and the youth. It preoccupied itself almost exclusively with the ANC. It did not rely on youth programmes to maintain relevance, but on the approval of the ANC faction that installed it into office.

Hence it was missing in action when it came to major youth campaigns such as the demand for free education and the fight against youth unemployment.

Which brings us to the most pressing question facing the league as it begins preparations for its national conference, which is scheduled to take place in September: Where to from here?

None who has the best interests of the league and the youth of this country at heart would dare argue with the proposition that the preparations for this conference have to be preceded by thorough political introspection and soul-searching.

Even though it may be impossible for the renewed league to completely insulate itself from possible future factional contestations within the ANC, it will have to make sure to always position itself as an independent and powerful voice of reason within the movement.

The renewed league will have to bravely and steadfastly reaffirm its organisational autonomy, specifically its right to elect its own leadership and to develop and implement its own programmes.

The renewed league will need to be dynamic and not shy to hold the ANC leadership’s feet to the fire through militant action so that it can bring about the kind of radical interventions required to solve the country’s urgent socioeconomic problems.

Perhaps most importantly, the new league will need to urgently remould its ideological orientation and ensure it plays an active role in the prosecution of the daily existentialist struggles of the youth to ensure that it is repositioned as the natural home of all youngsters in South Africa.

Anything short of this will result in the continued relegation of the youth to the sidelines of political activity. This will rob our country of a golden opportunity to realise her full economic potential.

What would we then say to Anton Lembede, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela?

- Gigaba is an ANC NEC member and former ANCYL president

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