South Africa

Youth League: RIP, or just a Deep Freeze?

By Stephen Grootes 5 November 2013

In the same way that a businessman who once ruled the JSE with pomp and flair is finally brought down to earth with a sequestration hearing in a shabby courtroom, so the political boom that was the ANC Youth League during the Malema years has come to a staggering bust in the South Gauteng High Court. The League has now officially lost control of its finances, and a judge is technically running the show. How did it come to this, will the League ever recover, and what on earth happened to all of its money? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It is not a secret that Julius Malema likes spending money. It’s something that literally everyone knows. What we didn’t really know was just how quickly it started. The debt that has brought the League down to its knees actually stems from the conference at which he was elected. At that un-esteemed gathering, with its high point being a young man dropping his trousers and pretty much mooning the entire thing, an events company was brought in to provide the usual light and sound equipment. I remember them well; I sat next to some of their techies, in my usual spot, wherever the sound-desk is.

They were friendly enough, if a little nervous about the assembled Youth Leaguers below them. After the conference, Malema and his cohorts simply refused to pay them, and so over the years, a debt of R12mn rose to R15mn. As my father still likes to remind me when I complain about my mortgage, that’s how interest works. It’s never really in your favour.

We have to step back a bit here and ask one simple question. Who was actually opening these notices of debt, and then final notices of debt, and then the one that comes in red lettering, and doing nothing? What were they thinking? That a company that’s owned many millions would simply disappear into a South African version of the ether?

At the same time, Malema and co. were crowing over the amount of money they actually had in the bank. The League, we were led to believe, somehow had assets of over R100mn. These were held through an investment firm, known as Lembede Investments (Anton Lembede was the first president of the Youth League). And the League’s leaders seemed to be swimming in money at the time.

At one point, this was a real point of insult for one of Malema’s enemies. Piet Rampedi had written up the story that seemed to explain that Malema was organising tenders in Limpopo for cash. In one of those infamous Ground Floor Luthuli House Press Conferences, Malema’s choice of insult was that “Piet drives a Tazz”. It was an indication that money mattered to Malema, and that those that didn’t have it were worth nothing.

At the second League conference, that re-elected Malema leader at Gallagher Estate (where else?) in 2011, there was a “business lounge”.

Unusually, journalists were allowed in. It was lavish. This seems like a good moment to come clean. I suppose somewhere in the universe, that second whiskey I had on the Friday night is part of the cash that is missing.

But where is the rest of it? The National Task Team that is currently running the League “won’t speculate” when asked directly if they think Malema just stole it. But they do point out that with the exception of Malema, and some guy who claimed to be the League’s spokeperson at the time, all of the other people who used to run the League are still members of the ANC. Which means some of them may get gold-embossed invitations to come and spill their guts on the Secretary General’s carpet.

Which, come to think of it, could be really really useful if you’re in an election campaign, and the Economic Freedom Fighters are suddenly making some headway. You can imagine Gwede Mantashe just picking his moment to extract maximum political impact, should he need it.

Speculating over Malema’s future is a game, we think you’d admit, that the whole country can play. But another real issue to consider is what is it going to take to get the Youth League back in running order.

There was a time, when Malema was doing his worst, when many people publicly questioned whether we needed an ANC Youth League at all. The answer is a most definite yes. Despite the problems they bring, not much is more worthwhile than making sure our young people are interested in politics. Particularly the peaceful parliamentary kind, rather than the sort that involves throwing stones at people.

And normally, no organisation would be better able to do this than the ANC itself. But it can’t be those old farts in the upper floors of Luthuli House that does it. Any parent of any child older than about a year can tell you this, no young person likes being told what to do by an old person. Which means that someone young has to run the blasted thing.

And herein lies the current rub. The League has been under administration of the political kind ever since the ANC’s National Executive Committee appointed a National Task Team to run its affairs. It seems incredibly unlikely that the League will have any kind of elective conference before next year’s elections. And as the Task Team was appointed by the NEC, it’s hard for them to be what young people like. Rebellious, sexy. Cool. A political James Dean.

We won’t see people leaving in their thousands, just the quiet sound of memberships lapsing as young people simply forget to renew them. So if the elections are say, in April, it would probably be June before the League actually gets a proper, independent leadership.

And when that happens, it’s not like they won’t have serious problems to face. For a start, they’ll probably still owe someone money. And the League’s leadership could well look like a poisoned chalice now, which means it won’t attract stellar candidates anyway. Their job, of trying to restart something that’s fallen into abeyance, will be mightily difficult.

It’s going to be quite some time before people think of the phrase “ANC Youth League” without it automatically being followed by “Julius Malema”. The new leaders would have to work even harder at just trying to have a political impact that doesn’t sound like they’re copying him. In other words, they can’t quack like Luthuli House, and they can’t quack like Malema either. That’s not an easy ask.

In the meantime the ANC will be living without a Youth League. That’s not a train smash for the short, or even medium term. But it could matter later. One of the League’s main roles was to help grow both young leaders, and young supporters. It’s supposed to be a hothouse to teach hot-heads how to lead. Without that training school, it may become harder to find good leadership material. In the longer run, it may also become harder to ensure that it has a good crop of members to call on later at all. Politics can be a habit, and it can help a party to get people into that habit young. It can be done later, of course, but that would be harder.

The ANC Youth League is supposed to play an important role in our politics. It has now ceased to exist in all but name. It has passed on. It is an ex-ANC Youth League. And it has left a big gap in our politics. DM

Stephen Grootes is the Senior Political Reporter at Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. At one point Julius Malema would have featured on the cover of his new book, SA Politics Unspun. But instead he got himself expelled, ending with a brief mention.

Photo: Expelled African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) President Julius Malema (R) gestures with then suspended ANCYL Treasurer-General Pule Mabe during a media briefing at the Luthuli house, headquarters of the African National Congress in Johannesburg March 5, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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