Time is not on the ANC’s side – it has failed to attract new generations
While many of the morbid symptoms of our fracturing politics can easily be observed, some can remain slightly obscured. One of those may be that the ANC has singularly failed to keep young people properly involved in its leadership. Those in power may have done this deliberately, for their own personal interests. And the use of the ANC Youth League for factional purposes has all but ensured that the party will not attract top young talent in the future. This could have longer-term consequences for our politics.
For any political party, managing generational change is complex and difficult – even allowing for the fact people are often reluctant to give up power or end their careers. Witness the Chinese president Xi Jinping, who managed to break the 10-year term ceiling imposed and respected by his predecessors. No matter their stage of life, for many the fires of ambition still burn strongly. For others, it could be a plain fear of losing power and safety.
In the South African context, given that many of the younger lives of our leaders were forged in the heat of the fight against apartheid, it may be impossible to convince them that the Struggle is over.
Because of the way our economy is structured, those in power may have few options after they leave office. They may have many dependents, families who can live with them in official residences, and others who receive a salary for being on a minister’s staff.
This may explain the relatively large number of senior people in our Cabinet. Some, like Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Angie Motshekga or Naledi Pandor have been there for many many years. Others, such as National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula or Defence Minister Thandi Modise have spent many years in Cabinet and in other top national jobs.
This may suggest to younger people that those who are older than them will be shuffled around while their generation will not get a chance.
If it is true that a diverse group of people makes better decisions than a homogenous one, then that must also be true of age diversity. It is unlikely that a group of seniors will make sensible decisions about our changing world. Bad, insensitive, incompetent decisions will be made.
There may be other, more immediate political consequences.
If older people refuse to leave Cabinet or retire, those below them, in the provinces, may find it impossible to move into national politics, which may leave them frustrated. But it also means that, as the problem cascades, that the problem in the national Cabinet is repeated in the provincial cabinets, and into local politics.
In many a country with a very young population, some of the decisions made by the ageing revolutionaries from another era may also make little sense to the majority of people. This must contribute to so many young people opting out of voting altogether.
After all, who in the ANC represents them?
Also, there may in fact be a “missing generational middle”, people who could have been national leaders who have now simply left frontline representative politics. They may have been able to lead a region, for example, but were never allowed the space to lead a province because others could not move up.
Some will consequently stay in positions for too long, accumulating the powers of patronage; others will simply leave politics altogether.
As a result, the ANC may find in a few years that it has few people to choose from for leadership.
Those who remain may have been unable to gain the proper leadership experience and have been unable to create national constituencies for themselves, leading to an even more fragmented party.
ANC Youth League
The way senior members of the ANC have treated the ANC Youth League must be a part of this dynamic.
While the process that led to the expulsion of Julius Malema as leader of the ANC Youth League was driven by many factors, particularly his own behaviour, the fact is that subsequently, leaders in the ANC used the league for their own purposes.
Collen Maine, who was its leader for some time, was simply a puppet of the Guptas and could neither be seen as credible, nor able to attract young people to the party.
The fact it took so many years after his departure for the Youth League to finally elect new leadership may also be a function of the sheer lack of interest the ANC leadership has in young people.
Even now, under the new leadership of Collen Malatji, the league has battled to create its own identity.
Apart from being used as an attack force against opposition parties, the only apparent contribution it has made to the political debate for young people is to demand that Thulas Nxesi should be removed from his position as Minister of Employment and Labour.
Nxesi shows no sign of panic at this call.
All this has created a reality in which younger voters have no reason to vote for the ANC – it seems unlikely there are many leaders in the party they can identify with.
With no strong Youth League around for so long, it is easy to forget how important these structures can be. If they function properly, they can be used to campaign and organise, to engage with communities and to keep young people interested in politics.
It seems unlikely that these structures will ever work in this way again. As the younger people lose out on the chance to learn their way in politics, they are never able to learn the lessons of leadership.
This also means that the ANC has failed to attract younger people who could serve as leaders later. Those with the talent and options may find other parties, such as the EFF, Rise Mzansi or even the DA more attractive.
Here, and in other countries, banks and law firms literally wage wage wars over attracting the best young talent. They do this because they know the future of their companies rests on it. The same may be true of political parties. If they are unable to get the best young talent now, they pay a heavy price in the future.
It was not always this way.
In 2014, nine years ago, this reporter had the immense privilege of escorting a group of journalism students around the IEC centre two days after the national elections in that year. This was a diverse group of generally information-rich middle-class young people. Exactly the kind of people political parties would like to attract, both as voters and as future leaders.
At the time, the young politician they wanted to meet was Mmusi Maimane. Their excitement was palpable when he walked over to say hello. It looked like he could win a few converts to the DA.
Not to be outdone, a pre-GuptaLeaks Malusi Gigaba tried his hand. He was able to convince many of them to “come back” to the ANC through a combination of charm, argument and power-dressing.
Who in the ANC could do that now? Anyone? DM