Arising from my recent article, the question arose if I should not have addressed it to the ANC instead of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). One comrade has cited the impact of factional divisions within the ANC on the ANCYL. He argues that this has had a very negative effect on the composition of ANCYL task teams, their mandate as well as their political and organisational focus.
He is sceptical of the commitment of the ANC leadership towards unity and argues that this in itself makes it difficult to forge unity in the ANCYL. Whilst this is a valid argument, however, it lacks in two respects. First, and perhaps most importantly, it denies the youth their agency, but secondly, it ignores ANCYL’s history.
In the previous article, we referred to the historical role of youth as a dynamising force in the ANC, particularly since the formation of the ANCYL. They radicalised the ANC, imbued it with a national consciousness (African nationalism) and transformed it into a militant and popular mass movement able to inspire the masses with confidence to confront the tyrannical regime.
Because of the role they played in the evolution of the ANC and the struggle in South Africa, the youth earned both the adoration of the oppressed as well as the wrath of the enemy. Whilst their people venerated them, the enemy visited cold-blooded brutality on them, seeking to break their revolutionary spirit and mores and to destroy their future and role in that future.
The opponents of the ANC have, without exception, understood the secret of the durability of the ANC, that it lies in its ability to attract the youth into the ranks behind its vision of a free, democratic and totally emancipated society. That explains why they all invest so much to either demoralise the youth by bombarding them with negative anti-ANC propaganda. This is aimed at drawing them away from progressive ideas and organised political participation, including through voting.
But, our adversaries also are working strenuously to draw the youth into their ranks as advocates of either reactionary or populist ideas. In so doing, they hope to curtail the future of the ANC by dismantling its youth-nurturing system so that there are no worthy heirs to the revolutionary-democratic future the ANC champions.
Now addressing the issue of unity and ANC internal divisions, we need to first accept the proposition that the ANC is the glue that holds our society together. This is not a cliché, it is borne of the historic-material conditions that informed the formation of the ANC and the manner in which our struggle evolved and progressed over time. The ANC is thus the organisational epitome of the vision of emancipation from colonial domination, and a political instrument for the attainment of that vision.
Should this glue break, the very threads holding our nation together will loosen up, and our society will split into different splinter groups. The significance of the ANC to the nation is underscored by the fact that even our most ardent opponents concur that the ANC vision and policies are unassailable. They fall over one another to claim that they would implement them “best” if elected, which won’t happen.
ANCYL founders were aware of this. The ANCYL was born during a time when the ANC was wrecked by deep internal strife and lacked a clear national consciousness and programme that would unite the masses in action behind it to confront racial tyranny. The founders had agency. They did not simply bemoan the divisions and organisational and political weakness.
Likewise, when faced with the cabal in the UDF in the 1980s, the South African Youth Congress (SAYCO) took the side of unity and fought steadfastly and openly against the cabal, some of whose members are still around and active in the movement. When these cabalists tried to propagate for the UDF not to disband when the ANC was unbanned and returned from exile, it was SAYCO, among others, that was at the spearhead of calling for the UDF to disband because the ANC was now back.
The rightful leader of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) was now able to operate openly and mobilise and lead the masses directly in her name. Our late President, Peter Mokaba, paid a heavy price for his campaign on our behalf against the unforgiving cabal. He was tarnished and labelled and suffered many injuries to his good name.
That is why we said in the previous article that this, therefore, “is the challenge facing the current generations of youth, if they must be a potent weapon in the hands of the progressive revolutionary-democratic youth for total emancipation”.
We argued that the youth must not become parrots of factionalists and enforcers of factionalism. They must interest themselves genuinely in the struggle, in the unity of the ANC and in the pursuit of the most radical programme for total emancipation. There may be some who are, we also cannot deny that.
The introduction of money into our politics has eroded revolutionary morality. There are now many people who worship money as their only god. They see ANC conferences and congresses as money-making schemes. There are many who now believe that with lots of money, it matters not which government is in power, or even whether the ANC loses power partially or altogether.
To these, the new democratic dispensation is not about the ideology or vision pursued, it is simply about how much money can be made, and how quickly. So long as they have money, they will survive even under the most reactionary regimes.
The ANCYL national congress must deliberate sincerely on this issue and confront it head-on. Will there be sufficient delegates at the congress to confront this matter with a genuine intention to end its ravaging impact on this vision, character and value system of the movement? Unfortunately, given just how pervasive the ANC is, any malaise in its values immediately permeates the rest of society. Likewise, any positive trait in the ANC is immediately embraced by the rest of our society as its very own.
Let me turn quickly to how ANCYL history demonstrates its agency. I have mentioned how ANCYL founders refused to be recruited into existing ANC factions in the 1940s. They set a precedent for the generations that were to follow them.
Since the formation of the ANCYL there has never been a decade in which the youth did not play a decisive role and make a pivotal contribution to propel the struggle. From the 1940s’ passive resistance campaign to the 1950s’ defiance campaign, the formation of MK in the 1960s, the mobilisation of students in the 1970s, the mass defiance campaign of the 1980s and negotiations and elections in the 1990s. Because of their role in the struggle, the previous generations have laid the basis for the most extensive political and militant consciousness of the youth of South Africa.
During negotiations, the ANCYL had to play its part in this process by rallying the youth into mass action in support of the key demands of the movement. Of course, it was not a compliant customer during the process, often advocating as it was for a more militant outcome. During a really difficult time, it maintained both a high level of militancy and revolutionary discipline.
However, after the 1994 elections, the ANCYL faced a serious challenge of having to adjust to the new conditions and adapt, or face death. For 50 years, the ANCYL had existed as an apartheid fighting machine, with its political programme and organisational structure oriented towards the purpose of defeating apartheid colonialism through direct forms of struggle.
The generation of leadership that had led youth struggles to this moment, mainly drawn from the ANC Youth Section as well as SAYCO, had just relinquished their leadership responsibilities in 1993 at the 18th National Congress, which created a bit of a void as some of them had become household names for a period spanning almost a decade;
A new group of leaders, although largely drawn from the same generation as above, had come in during a complex and confusing period, and had not had sufficient time to conceptualise the new period and thus be able theoretically to locate the mission and role of the youth and thus the tasks of the organisation during this new phase.
There was a mass and unplanned exodus of seasoned youth leadership to Parliament and the Legislatures in 1994, which denuded the ANCYL of seasoned national and provincial leadership and left a huge void at its Head-Office and provinces, which then had the effect of weakening the organisation.
The first serious seeds of renewal were planted at the 1996 19th National Congress, when, first, a new leadership was elected, blending together the different generations that were at the national and provincial helm of the ANCYL at this time, which would still focus on the tasks of rebuilding the ANCYL as their singular task;
The period between 1996 and 2000 was characterised largely by the painstaking work of rebuilding the structures of the organisation that had become extremely weak during the period between 1994 and 1996. During this time, critical debates continued to rage as to the role of the organisation post-apartheid and how it sought to position itself politically.
Around 2000, the ANCYL national executive committee (NEC) decided to embark on a national mass HIV and AIDS campaign in order to take the organisation out of its cocoon and rally the youth into action on a matter as vital to our society as this one.
After the 2001 National Congress, the NEC decided that both political and organisational focus had to be shifted towards more mass mobilisation around the issues of youth unemployment, which was identified in the NEC document, “Getting Young People Working: an employment strategy of the ANCYL”, as being the result of structural defects in the economy.
One of the issues that became a huge concern at this moment was the toxic correlation between youth unemployment among ANCYL members and their abuse at the hands of malignant ANC leaders at various tiers who used these unemployed youth as pawns in pursuit of their devious political ambitions. Many were bought cars and alcohol, provided stipends and sent to disrupt ANC members drunk at the instance of these malignant leaders.
While these leaders got the positions they wanted, both within the ANC and in government, the youth, on the other hand, got the raw end of the deal, except for getting even more hooked on alcohol and drugs. This also had an impact on the quality of ANCYL members and meetings, with hooliganism creeping into ANCYL structures, affecting its programmes and robbing the organisation of good members and cadres.
Furthermore, during the same time, the ANCYL decided to take on the campaign against racism, inspired by the arrest of Andrew Babeile in Vryburg, North West, and all over the country, given a proliferation of racist incidents across the country, in the farms and small towns. The organisation was vocal in sports, cultural activities and others. There was no space it left void.
The ANCYL 22nd National Congress in 2004 took place amidst a brewing leadership succession tussle in the ANC, which the ANCYL had correctly anticipated would be draining and divisive across the tripartite alliance and the broader national liberation movement. For over four decades, the ANC had enjoyed peaceful succession, but this was about to change in 2007, given the new dynamics then. The rift between the then ANC President Thabo Mbeki and the then Deputy President Jacob Zuma had become irreparable, and hence a bitter succession battle could not be avoided.
And, the ANCYL would be called upon to play a critical role in this succession battle, and in this regard, would need a view as to what must happen in the ANC, a strong organisation to engage in this decisive battle and yet not be consumed by it, and strong leadership to provide guidance to the entire organisation, enjoying the confidence of the youth and the broader membership of the ANC and yet grounded enough to be able to take this issue on without fear or lack of legitimacy.
However, the events of 2005, culminating in Zuma being “released” from his government role, led to the ANCYL changing focus altogether, with this issue and the questions of succession broadly in 2007 gaining prominence and becoming predominant. From then on, the focus became the ANC and its leadership questions, as the ANCYL crowned itself, with the connivance of the media, as the ANC’s “king-makers”.
This was unfortunate as it was not only ahistorical but was a distortion of the ANCYL’s rich history and deviated from its twin tasks, confining its role to ANC leadership elections. It bred arrogance and ill-discipline that began to characterise the organisation in later years. In parenthesis, the notion of “king-makers” never existed in the minds of the founders of the ANCYL and was never, throughout the ANCYL’s history, a part of the organisation’s culture.
To amplify, it took four years since the ANCYL’s launch in 1944 eventually to propagate leadership changes in the ANC. Even then, this was because Dr Alfred Bitni Xuma had refused to support the ANCYL’s more militant programme of action. ANCYL leaders first approached different senior leaders of the ANC to stand for these positions.
When they all declined, they then approached both Dr James Sebe Moroka, who was not an ANC member at the time and Walter Sisulu to stand for President and Secretary General. They then brought Oliver Tambo, and Nelson Mandela into the ANC NEC as well in order to strengthen the national executive and replenish it with new, young, fresh and more militant blood.
Two observations must then be made in regard to the above
It is, therefore, a fallacy to claim the ANCYL was formed to contest and change leaders in the ANC. From the outset, the ANCYL sought to forge unity in the ANC, rejected divisions and condemned factionalism within the movement, and knew that leadership contestations are a very divisive affair, which must be resorted to in the last resort.
And it was only when senior ANC leaders declined the nomination that ANCYL members looked for a respectable African candidate to stand for ANC President in the form of Dr Moroka. Instead of nominating one of their very own, given the nature of the African society at the time, and then put up Sisulu, the most senior amongst themselves, to stand for SG in order to revive that important office which is the engine of the organisation.
The period leading to and following the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane Conference was sad as it was tragic for the ANC as a whole, and the ANCYL was no exception. The divisions in the ANC had permeated all its structures, and the ANCYL was no exception; it was also affected from the branches upwards.
The COPE split affected the ANCYL, and it lost some of its NEC members who left to join COPE. This period caused much consternation and paranoia within the movement. This had immensely disastrous consequences in the ANC as relations among comrades soured bitterly.
It would take long for the ANC, as well as the ANCYL itself as one of the principal protagonists at the time, to recover, if at all, from the episode and the events leading to 2007. As it went to its own 23rd National Congress in 2008, the ANCYL began to be consumed by the divisions it had pledged to fight against. So divided was the organisation that its 23rd National Congress was characterised by completely alien behaviour.
Not only was the election of its leadership flawed, but the entire process of selecting delegates was itself completely flawed, and there were many irregularities that characterised the congress procedures. The election process was characterised by violence, mayhem and ill-discipline.
The recognition of the outcome of that flawed process by the NEC was a huge and uncalculated mistake, the consequences of which were to be almost fatal for the ANCYL. Post the 2008 Congress, leading to the 24th National Congress in 2011, the ANCYL became a voice and very embodiment of gross ill-discipline, vulgarism, anarchy and factionalism.
Even when it introduced important debates on nationalisation and “generational mix”, these quickly became instruments for causing divisions and lobbying for leadership changes in the ANC.
Both in terms of its political posturing as well as its organisational functioning, the ANCYL was in deep trouble. So bad was the situation that the ANCYL was nearly dissolved by the ANC 2012 Conference. In the end, the conference mandated the new NEC to deal with issues of concern in the ANCYL. The decision to dissolve the ANCYL NEC in 2013 was thus not taken lightly.
It agonised over it for a long period of time. However, this proved to be a decisive moment in the rich and eventful 70-year history of the organisation. With hindsight, that decision should have been avoided had the ANC leadership been more principled in engaging with the ANCYL’s 2008 National Congress and the leadership elected from there.
The ANCYL underwent comprehensive political and organisational degeneration, which left the ANC itself weaker without its Youth League. The ANC has suffered immensely in regard to its standing among the youth.
However, no one can doubt that even though the ANC’s standing among the youth is weaker, the youth have not abandoned the ANC as the principal architect of the future they want, and which they believe in. What the youth are calling for is the rebuilding of the ANCYL as their principal political organ through which they can impact the ANC. The youth are demanding that ANC leaders allow them space to elect their own leadership, not leaders of ANC factions elected on the basis of their positioning among these factions and advantages in terms of resources which the youth do not have.
Political guidance does not mean the same thing as interference. However, the history of the ANCYL demonstrates clearly the agency of youth. It is not the ANC leadership that must give the youth their organisation back and space to elect their own leadership. The youth must, in the interests of their own future, act independently and boldly in both regards.
Malusi Gigaba is an ANC NEC member, a former ANCYL president and a former minister.