Somewhere at a glittering reception this past weekend, the deputy minister for telecommunications and postal services, Stella Ndabeni Abrahams, celebrated her 40th birthday. Guests posted it on Facebook. Her name also showed up on a list of 38 names on Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s slate, entitled “CR17 Youth Nomination to the ANC NEC”. Being young in the ANC isn’t what it used to be. By CARIEN DU PLESSIS.
Seven years ago during a sultry session of the ANC’s national general council in Durban, the theme song was one singing the virtues of Solomon Mahlangu, a young man who fled into exile in the 1970s to join Umkhonto we Sizwe. He was found guilty of murder and executed by the apartheid regime in 1979.
Aged only 22 at the time of his death, Mahlangu will forever remain a youthful icon of defiance.
The song, which resounded everywhere in Durban at that time, from the plenary floor at the Durban International Convention Centre to the drunken late-night benches of Cubana in Florida Road, was pushed by the ANC Youth League (under Julius Malema at the time). It was used to lobby for a younger generation of leaders. One of the calls was, for instance, for former youth league president Fikile Mbalula to be a candidate for secretary-general at the party’s 2012 Mangaung conference.
Malema eventually didn’t make it to Mangaung conference. Mbalula got distracted by ministerial positions and, it turned out, plush and questionable trips paid for by private companies. He is now around 45 (ANC Youth League leaders keep their age vague for reasons of longevity).
Incidentally, some bright veterans of the youth league have been drawn into Zuma’s Cabinet, as had been the call by the youth league in 2010, but instead of infusing it with youthful energy, many of them have been ensnared by either the perks of the job or the State Capture agenda.
Fast-forward to 2017 – the ANC is still saddled with a top six old enough to either be retired or eyeing retirement.
Instead, they’re fighting succession battles in a party that might eventually retire with them.
General Zweli Mkhize, at 61, is the most youthful. Gwede Mantashe might have been bordering on young when he first became secretary-general a decade ago aged 52, but he’s now much older and wiser – but still, apparently, hanging in there for more.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (who will be 65 when the ANC’s December conference comes) on Saturday darted between old and young as he addressed a conference of the MK council – made up of military veterans but not the MKMVA’s Kebby Maphatsoe persuasion – and the ANC Youth League in the Joburg region.
He told the league in the Hillbrow Theatre: “The ANC today needs the imagination, foresight and political clarity of the youth league of 1944.”
He added: “We don’t want youthful leaders who are stupid. We don’t want youthful leaders who don’t know their stuff. We want youthful leaders who know where to take the country to. Who are educated.”
Did he count Malema, who he helped kicked out of the ANC structures, among those leaders – or did he mean to refer to the current crop in the league who are supporting President Jacob Zuma’s preferred successor, ANC MP Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma?
So then, a day or two after this, the list of “youth nominations” to a national executive committee with Ramaphosa at the head emerged.
It featured some of Malema’s contemporaries, such as Vuyiswa Tulelo, who was secretary of the league until she “graduated” by being too old to run again in 2011 (she was subsequently appointed consul general to Chicago and is now in her early 40s), attorney Ronald Lamola, who was elected deputy president in 2011 and who is still a relatively young 35, and businessman Pule Mabe, who was elected treasurer-general of the league in 2008. Mabe recently left his job as a Member of Parliament.
There are others, such as ANC communications manager Khusela Sangoni, former National Youth Development Agency chief executive Steven Ngubeni (dismissed for financial misconduct but reinstated by a labour court), and former SABC TV host and former ANC Youth League member Mpho Tsedu (in his mid-40s), who convened a forum of young cadres (if those in their late 30s and mid-40s can still go by that label) about four months ago. Part of the idea with the forum – which wasn’t reported to have convened again – was to find young leadership in the ANC that would be capable of taking on opposition leaders like the Democratic Alliance’s Mmusi Maimane and Economic Freedom Fighter Julius Malema. They are both younger than 40.
The success of Tsedu’s efforts, for now, seems limited. ANC Youth League national leader Collen Maine largely seems to be missing in action since his birthday (some hard questions have been asked about his youthfulness too) last month, as well as a Sunday Times story that he accepted a R500,000 “donation” from a coal company to stop its contract with Eskom being scrapped, so there isn’t much youthfulness forthcoming from within the ANC’s structures either.
So while young DA leaders are graduating from the party’s training programmes and young EFF leaders are getting degrees, the ANC is fighting it out over some 60-somethings, and it’s headed by a 75-year-old with a struggle intelligence background and a bad case of paranoia.
One of the debates in the ANC is whether the party’s new leadership would be able to win it the 2019 elections. The party suffered some shock defeats in the 2016 local government elections when it lost three metros to the opposition.
Many consider Dlamini Zuma as a liability, because they say voters could not stomach another Zuma and because she’s not charismatic – even if the 68-year-old is driving a campaign with a strong youth focus within the ANC and even if she can expect the 60 or so votes of the ANC Youth League delegation at the party’s December conference.
They say they’d prefer Ramaphosa or somebody like Mkhize at the head, to make the ANC more palatable to the voters.
It’s true – getting the face of the party right is important, but you need proper foot soldiers too – possibly around Solomon Mahlangu’s age. By the looks of it, this party will have some serious work to do in the next two years if it wants to construct a campaign that will appeal to the unsentimental and hard-to-please born-free voters. DM
Photo: ANC’s top six in Johannesburg, 8 January 2017. (Greg Nicolson)
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