South Africa

The Youth League’s militant shards fail to learn the Cope lesson

By Sipho Hlongwane 1 August 2012

We now know that two splinter groups formed after the ANC expelled Julius Malema. Which is all a bit of a yawn, in the greater scheme of things. But when Cope splintered off from the ruling party, you’d think people on both sides would learn their lesson. That has clearly not happened. Not that SIPHO HLONGWANE is discouraged of giving some unsolicited advice.

Two days ago, a press release from Asikiji Defence Force (ADF) arrived in our email inbox. It claimed to be allied to former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and the so-called Friends of the Youth League (FYL). We were going to bin the mail, because let’s face it, the ANC Youth League is about as interesting as the air pistol event at the London Olympics. Seriously, who cares anymore?

But that’s not to say that the goings-on of Malema are not interesting in the broader sense of what is happening to the ANC (which is always very relevant). It is undergoing the sort of slow-motion meltdown that tends to afflict most ruling parties of a certain stripe. The ANC exercises power in a specific way – within the party structures, power is the ultimate divider. If you have it, you have everything. If you don’t, you literally have nothing, because those who won will come after you with everything they have. This game spills over into government positions, which are gifts and prizes for the powerful to dish out to their supporters. Under such a system, to lose power is fatal for one’s political career. It isn’t like some countries where someone who has lost a party power struggle may someday stage a comeback. In this system, the only way to make a comeback is to go outside of the party.

This explains why Cope exists, and why we have the ADF and the FYL now.

An interview with ADL spokesman Cheche Selepe (who appears to have loose connections with informal traders’ associations around Gauteng) made a lot of soundbites that sounded familiar to anyone who followed the Cope saga in the early days.

Their umbrage is set off entirely by leadership squabbles. The biggest one is obviously the expulsion of Malema from the party. Selepe said: “We share a lot of principles with Friends of the Youth League. We believe that Malema was treated unjustly and we want change in Mangaung in the form of the removal of ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and Jacob Zuma from power.”

Cope only got going after the former ANC president Thabo Mbeki lost power at the party’s Polokwane conference. The exodus of former party members came almost exclusively from his supporters.

ADL claims to be defending democracy by supporting the cause of Malema. “[We] are people saying that our leaders are being killed. Our democratically elected leaders of the ANC Youth League are being deposed. We are saying, ‘Defend this man’. What are you saying to the 5,000 delegates who elected him and their constituencies back at home who sent them? You are saying that they must all go, then.”

The ANC has on several occasions dismissed all groups that have formed in support of Malema. In response, Selepe said that the people who are saying this are clearly factionalised and speaking from their particular political viewpoint (which is apparently invalid). “We might be enemies of those elements in the party who are hell-bent on destroying the revolution,” he said.

Remember Cope saying that they are forming the party to defend the national democratic revolution, which Zuma’s ANC had abandoned?

However, Selepe said that his people, whom he claims are all ANC Youth League members, would not be forming a new party. 

“Many of our enemies want us to form a new political party so that we can weaken the revolution. If you break away from the movement, you weaken it. Cope broke away and took many people. That weakened the [two-thirds] majority that the party had. We are basically not going to form a new party,” the ADF spokesman said.

Asked about the difference between his movement and the FYL, Selepe said that they were a militarised force that would act as more than bodyguards to Malema and other such leaders. “We want to restore peace by providing defence. But we will be more than bodyguards. Another form of defence is attack. We must be clear to the dark forces that we will attack – ideologically or otherwise,” he said. (He would not go as far as actually threatening violence, but one has to wonder about the implications of such a statement.)

The bizarre contradictions are a sign that the disgruntled Youth League members who have formed these splinter groups are well aware of how politically damaging it can be to form a separate party, but nonetheless cannot abide their enemies in the party – operating, therefore, as if they are in warring parties. The original press statement sent out differs in many ways from ANC and Youth League policy (including a strange pronouncement on renewable energy), and it is unclear why they would do this if they had no intention of splitting off. 

For now, Malema’s campaign outside of the party is chaotic; even comical. There are many people in the party who know how to play this game while still staying within the umbrella of the party. We keep seeing stories in the paper about movements to support people like Tokyo Sexwale and Kgalema Motlanthe at Mangaung. These silent campaigns happen without any direct confrontation; without Zuma or Mantashe. Malema’s failure to be patient inside the party was never likely to yield careful strategy when he was out.

The ANC faces the same question about closed elections and an airtight debating space – it yields the same ugly results. People resort to extreme measures to get themselves heard. Instead of being dismissive of the somewhat inconsequential Cope (and the very inconsequential Malema people in the youth league) maybe it is time for the party to ask what it can do to stop itself from haemorrhaging members in vast numbers once a wildly popular leader loses an election. DM

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