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ANC can easily fix Youth League problem; here’s how

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

It occurs to me that all of the ANC’s problems with the Youth League could be solved very simply, in an expedient and, above all, politically correct way.

“The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about,” the philosopher and novelist David Foster Wallace once said.

He wasn’t speaking of the African National Congress, but could just as well have been. Why does it always seem like the simplest, most straightforward solutions are the hardest for the ruling party to implement?

I should probably lead this column with a bit of a disclaimer. Dictating what the ANC should or shouldn’t do, especially when it comes to internal matters, is a fool’s errand. It is notoriously difficult to know what is going on at the best of times. This is true for ANC members too. There are simply too many people, too many interests and too many intersecting thrusts to be able to draw an accurate tapestry of the party. The best we can hope for is capturing accurate (and momentary) snapshots of the ANC, and then peering at them in hopes of piecing together trends. It only works sometimes: just look at how spectacularly most of us failed to predict Jacob Zuma’s ascendancy to the top job in the country, way back in the middle of the last decade.

Telling the ANC what to do suggests we know what’s going on.  Maybe now we do, actually.

Every now and then, all is laid bare. When the ANC Youth League ran rampant in central Johannesburg in response to actions by its parent body, we could all see what was happening, and more importantly, why.

This was a mutiny against the ANC’s attempt to curb the power of the Youth League and its president Julius Malema. There is no technical reason why the ANC shouldn’t be able to do this. The Youth League ultimately is not an autonomous body (despite Malema’s attempts to convince us otherwise) and must submit to the discipline of the ANC.

The worry is that the ANC needed to haul Malema before a disciplinary committee to begin with.

There is nothing that suggests that silencing Malema won’t prevent another from rising up. The newly elected ANCYL secretary general Sindiso Magaqa strikes me as being very capable of filling Malema’s shoes of controversy and trouble. There’s the legions of ANCYL provincial leaders and nobodies like Jacob Lebogo whose idea of “party discipline” apparently differs a great deal to that of the ANC leadership.

No, it isn’t Malema that needs to be dealt with, but the ANC Youth League itself.

The solution is ridiculously simple: drop the cut-off age for Youth League membership from 35 to 25.

Why people who have one foot in middle-age are allowed to stay on in the Youth League is a mystery. Perhaps it is because the ANCYL is representative of South Africa’s youth in that they are kept out of adult pursuits and responsibilities for too long. Except for all the other young people, it’s because they have no skills and education that allow them to gain adult employment. For the ANC to say that the Youth League’s cut-off age must be dropped is for them to effectively rule out a “lost generation” from political representation.

This doesn’t mean the ANC can’t drop the age without losing any political points while doing so. It could say, youth unemployment is a huge problem in South Africa. It’s a structural problem. And, as an example of our commitment to tackle even the most intractable problems, we’re going to restructure the ANC to reflect the country we want to have, not the one we have now. We’re going to give ANCYL leaders real political power (and responsibility), by creating a political apprenticeship programme. When you reach the age of 25, you have to leave the Youth League, and can then join the ANC where you will be put into this programme. It will be a political school that will equip you with the skills needed to run a country. Perhaps you will be sent overseas to China (or wherever) to study, before being sent home to apply your new skills in government work. Or we’ll put you into a government position in the provinces somewhere where you will be required to attain certain qualifications to move up in government.

In those 10 years, ambitious people who would have otherwise languished in the ANCYL, with plenty of time on their hands to cause trouble for everyone, would have gained vital skills and education. They will have been blooded in what civil service really means. They will be better leaders.

This plan makes the ANC look politically good, it makes sure the party can control the young ‘uns far better (that’s important for keeping the party’s vision intact across generations), and more importantly, it means people like Malema are in the mother body where their appetite for power can be sufficiently assuaged.

There’s no reason that a political career for a young person in the ANC should only start at 35. DM



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