South Africa

A lecture to love or leave: Gwede goes to Wits

By Greg Nicolson 26 July 2013

Ahead of the 2014 elections the youth are an ever-increasing voter bloc to consider. ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe went to the University of Witswatersrand on Thursday evening to address students on the importance of the National Development Plan (NDP). GREG NICOLSON joined the audience, wondering about Uncle Gwede and how Julius Malema’s new party might change politics.

Gwede Mantashe may seem a strange choice to address university students. He’s more the gruff uncle, the one who offers lectures rather than advice, that uncle who is respected and makes you reflect on an issue – if you’re listening – rather than tap into your situation as a young person and inspire you. He’s the guy Late Night News makes fun of for his bewildering, paradoxical analogies of an ox, a scorpion, an acacia tree, a madala and… You get the picture.

Normally, you wouldn’t take much notice. Mantashe is part of the ANC’s top six and who better to articulate the importance of the NDP? Two factors made his appearance at Wits interesting. Firstly, there’s an election less than a year away and young South Africans are an ever-important constituency; political parties want to look like they’re in touch. They want an army of young supporters behind them. Secondly, it was impossible to ignore the Julius (not) in the room.

In fact, the early speakers, including the Wits ANC Youth League chair and Lebogang Maile, the provincial MEC of sports, arts and recreation (also the guy accused last weekend of bottling someone over a cigar), wouldn’t let you forget Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The insults came on a conveyor belt, tailor-made by years of the public and media’s ridicule of Malema. Basically, the message was that Malema and his red bereted cohorts are party-loving tender-grabbers and the ANC mustn’t let him appropriate their concept of “economic freedom”.

Mantashe wouldn’t speak on Malema. “You will notice that I haven’t talked about the Economic Freedom Front,” he jibed. “I do not talk about opposition parties as a principle. They are not my business,” he added to cheers from the crowd.

He did, however, explain the NDP and address some youth concerns. The questions came with a brand of ease you can only find in young people. Addressing one of the country’s preeminent politicians, the questioners spoke their mind while the crowd looked for anything they could laugh at.

“You ask us to match the EFF pound for pound,” said one student to the opening speakers. “I’d like to differ. How do I match Kenny Kunene intellectually pound for pound? He is below me! They are too hungry to think straight.” Another offered: “I would like to thank the ANC for what they’ve done and like to thank them for the project of the Gautrain. [Laughter]. Yeah, the train is nice. I enjoy it.” A question then came from a student in an ANC polo shirt, Youth League beret and a pencil hanging from his ear. He wanted Lindiwe Sisulu to speak to the Mandela family to tell them to stop tarnishing the great man’s name.

In general, however, the students expressed common concerns on education, jobs and the environment. Mantashe explained that while many people have some issues with parts of the NDP, “The fundamental principle is that of working together to realise a better country.” He was no Malema, but his quips and anecdotes kept the audience involved (though some did start to leave). He explained the core principles of the document that should define the future of the country. It believes in raising exports after productive capacity is reached. It knows we must address the infrastructure backlog. More youth need to be employed. Investment must trump consumption. Competition has to increase and prices reduce in monopoly industries. South Africa needs more jobs and better standard of living. “It is a national plan. What is important about it is we have succeeded in mobilising society in the same direction,” said the secretary general.

He told the students he supports the youth wage subsidy, or a version of it. “Call it anything. All we are saying is if the state can create opportunities for young people to enter the labour market it must do so.” He was proud of the two new universities President Jacob Zuma and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande announced on Thursday, but said we must continue to build and improve FET colleges to produce artisans.

The crowd of students gasped when Mantashe dared to say business isn’t all bad. “Monopoly capital is both an enemy and potential ally,” he said to grunts from the audience. A girl’s laugh stole the moment but Mantashe repeated his comment. “Monopoly capital is both an enemy and potential ally. That is the essence of a mixed economy. The essence of a mixed economy is monopoly capital is both an enemy and potential ally.”

The economy. On the issue, the students, as students, seemed more workerist (more EFF perhaps), than the ANC cadres in government dealing with the pressures of investor confidence, credit downgrades, the current account deficit, and the tax-to-social-grant base. If they pressed Mantashe, they might have been bewildered at the multiple task teams or commissions trying to get the economy right. They might have asked about statistics on future job prospects, not just for themselves but for all South Africans. They might have cited the falling growth figures and the fact that jobs are becoming fewer. They might have asked how the NDP, which could put the ANC on a collision course with its alliance partners, can practically be implemented.

The scary thing is: on finding out the answers, the lack of them and the complexities in the responses of those who can answer, as youth, they might demand more. A fair number of them might turn to parties like Julius Malema’s EFF. DM

Photo of Gwede Mantashe at Wits by Greg Nicolson.

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