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Analysis: The ANC Youth League’s tenuous grasp on reality

Analysis: The ANC Youth League’s tenuous grasp on reality

When the ANC decided to reconstitute its Youth League, after the rather public defenestration of its current least favourite Young Lion, there were many questions about what role it would play. Some suggested it would be a tame kitten, others that it would have a roar that would actually mean something in our politics. But, based on the track-record that the League and its members have established so far, it seems Julius Malema was right: it's been reduced to a "youth desk", now being used only to serve factional interests in the ANC. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It may be hard to remember for those with shortish memories, but there was a time when the ANC Youth League literally set the agenda. Whatever it stated about anything made that issue a story. From the nationalisation of mines, the expropriation of land without compensation, to Caster Semenya, you name it, the ANC Youth League made it the burning issue of the day. Of course, some of that was to do with the unique political gifts of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Commander-in-Chief.

But even before that, the ANC Youth League mattered. Under Fikile Mbalula, its roar was heard on issues like the number of Indian students at the University of Kwa-Zulu/Natal, on the politics of the day, and of course, who can forget the role it played in creating momentum for President Jacob Zuma himself in the run-up to Polokwane. Before Mbalula it was Malusi Gigaba, in the days before he picked up that “Greatest Contributor to the Industry Award” from Derek Hanekom. Gigaba led the charge on the issue of the Springbok, and kept the League relevant and important.

Crucially, through Malema, Mbalula and Gigaba, the League was independent. Often the League would come out on the issues of the day, only be to rebuked by Luthuli House. Its job at the time was to be “radical”. Sometimes this would mean the League would play a path-finding role, as it did in the 1940’s, when Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu agitated for a more militant ANC. Sometimes it was simply smacked down, and informed from on high that its plans were just not possible. Still, it was independent. This fed into policy debates within the ANC, it made them richer, and more diverse. Even if, at times, it made them a little more scary.

Something has shifted.

When Collen Maine was elected/appointed to the post of leader, he made his own position clear:an attack on President Zuma is an attack on the ANC and on all of us“. He has made good on that early political promise. Since Maine’s election, the toughest political episode for Zuma has surely been the still-not-fully- explained-sacking of Nhlanhla Nene as Finance Minister. In the days after Nene was removed the ANC itself maintained a form of radio silence. There was a simple statement noting the fact, nothing more. COSATU, until then in opposition to “neoliberal” Nene’s policies more than anyone, criticised the decision of Zuma, saying it was “shocked and disconcerted”. The SACP, never one to shrink from defending Zuma on anything said it “noted” the decision. But of course, Maine was different, telling News24 that “Nene is not so special that the rand can fall because of him…. He might be beautiful to others, but it’s not so beautiful that he can make the rand fall”. What is significant here is not so much that Maine was supporting Zuma’s decision; what is significant is that he was the only person (apart from perhaps a few residents in Saxonwold) who was supporting Zuma, even in a moment when he looked truly on his own. Why?

But wait, there’s more. While all of this was happening, just after Zuma re-appointed Pravin Gordhan to the post, questions were still swirling around what had happened. The “narrative” was bad for Zuma. He looked weak as he had just been reversed, he also looked out of touch and as if he did not understand the economy (maybe because he genuinely was weak, out of touch, and….. – Ed). And it was all anyone would talk about, talk shows, social networks, people were talking about just that one issue. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the ANC Youth League released a statement claiming Public Protector Advocate Thulisile Madonsela was a “clumsy clown, pseudo-politician celebrity-wannabe”. It was the kind of language designed to inflame, to get Twitter’s blood pressure up at the rudeness of the League. But it also managed to do what it was designed to do, which was to divert discussion, and fire, away from Zuma and Nene.

The same has happened again more recently: the League has claimed that certain banks were somehow responsible for the fall in the rand. Maine has now, with great ceremony, closed his account at ABSA, after claiming that its parent, Barclays, is somehow responsible for the Rand’s fall. The idiocy of this move is indeed breathtaking. The League claims it was the bank’s advice to clients to go short on the Rand that is responsible, without accepting that it is the management of the economy that has led to that advice in the first place. It’s a bit like smashing the cholesterol indicator rather than giving up your Banting diet.

Just last week the League issued a statement through the usual ANC email address to formally respond to Mmusi Maimane’s speech about race. Unfortunately, the email had not been checked properly, and included, at the top, the phrase “Please go through this and urgently react we want to react to the DA and Mmusi.” It turned out the email was actually directed to the League’s top leaders. Apart from just an indication of carelessness on email (a longstanding ANC Youth League tradition… some things don’t change), it also reveals a complete lack of planning. Everyone and her dog knew that Maimane was going to speak about race on Tuesday. Why some sort of response had not already been prepared is odd. But it also indicates the role the League is playing, as it has been aggressive in attacking the DA, and many others, on issues of race. This is part of a game of calibration, of course. It will go hard, allowing President Jacob Zuma to go soft. It allows him to look statesmanlike, as if he’s above it all, and thus a sober person in the issue. It’s not bad politics, and it can be very effective, especially when the audience is not attuned to the basic tricks.

In this case, the League is acting on behalf of the ANC. It is, in a way, doing what it should be doing, playing a political role in helping the organisation. It would be difficult to criticise it for doing that. But that raises the question, what was it doing in the other incidents? Was it not then, by being the only group supporting Zuma and trying to deflect attention during Nene-gate, playing a factional role? Surely it was. And that faction is a group of people supporting Zuma.

It may seem that this doesn’t really matter, that if the League is helping one group in the ANC, well so what? Actually, there are serious implications for the party in the longer term. One of the reasons the League was allowed to be “radical” in the past, was that that made it attractive to younger people. The ANC, the broad church it claims to be, wants to make sure it has a generational mix, people of all ages. There is a reason the League’s membership ballooned under Malema: he was popular and radical (although his critics will claim there was serious manipulation of the League’s membership figures).

Maine is very much an establishment figure. He is, um, un-young (he’s known in some circles as “34.9”because he became leader just before turning 35, which would have made him ineligible), and has already held formal office as an MEC. This is unlikely to make him as a symbol of the League very attractive to young people. But even we remove Maine’s age from the equation, it simply looks as if the League is being used as a battering ram by older people, who are in charge of factional groups. This surely makes it unlikely that younger people will find the League a good place to be. The ANC has often claimed that it’s Youth League is important because it grooms the leaders of the future.

If the League doesn’t create those leaders, then where are they going to come from? And what constituency will come with them? Possibly none. Which could pose more serious questions for the ANC, and it’s management of the ANC Youth League right now. A factional ANC Youth League doesn’t really serve anyone’s interests. Including, in the longer term, the ANC itself. DM

Photo: ANCYL National Conference, 26 November 2013.


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