Defend Truth


Miscarriage of democracy and the ANC Youth League


Born in Johannesburg in 1941, Paul Trewhela worked in underground journalism with Ruth First and edited the underground journal of MK, ‘Freedom Fighter’, during the Rivonia Trial. He was a political prisoner in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Fort as a member of the Communist Party in 1964-1967, separating from the SACP while in prison. In exile in Britain, he was co-editor with the late Baruch Hirson of ‘Searchlight South Africa’, banned in South Africa.

How do honest and serious ANC members respond to Rebone Tau’s open letter, when she writes, ‘Branches of the ANCYL are dysfunctional and not programme-driven’?

The former National Task Team member of the ANC Youth League, Rebone Tau, presents a major challenge to ANC members with her open letter to the ANC National Executive Committee (Please don’t allow the ANCYL to die, 30 October).

The points she makes apply to the ANC as a whole, not just the Youth League. How do honest and serious members respond to her open letter, when she writes: “Branches of the ANCYL are dysfunctional and not programme-driven. Factionalism and gatekeeping have become the order of the day.”

The question for members of the ANC, the Youth League and the Women’s League is: Are these comments by Tau true or not true for their own branches? And if so, what do they as ANC members think is the reason for this, and what are they doing about it?

In her final paragraph, Tau refers to “time-serving of individuals” in the ANCYL, which according to her is an organisation which does not any longer “serve the people”. Is this true, or false? If it is true, what would this say for the present and the future of the ANC as the political organisation that has provided the government of South Africa for the past 25 years, the century-old party of John Langalibalele Dube, Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela?

We have seen what individual interests have done to the organisation,” she writes – the organisation of the Guptas, the Watsons, State Capture and systemic corruption. “We are no longer in touch with the people on the ground, as our focus is more on internal ANC battles,” she continues. This, she says, “should be a wake-up call for all of us in the organisation, especially the leadership”.

Right at the start, Tau makes the point of how exceptional it is for her to be writing this open letter to the NEC, noting it is “neither organisational or usual for a member of the ANC Youth League or ANC” to do what she is doing, since any member “would usually be told to go to one’s branch” and raise the matter via the structures of the organisation.

The trouble, she states, is that “material conditions do not allow me to go to my branch of the ANCYL”, due to what she refers to as “difficult conditions”.

This, she explains, is because when the Youth Task Team was convening ANCYL assemblies in Limpopo last month, two cars were burned, and two former presidents of the ANCYL, Malusi Gigaba and Fikile Mbalula, “had to flee from an ANC meeting”. She writes: “This is a clear sign that all is not well in the ANCYL, and the situation is getting worse.”

She goes on to argue that arbitrary conditions are now endemic in the ANCYL, going back as far as its national congress at Mangaung in 2008 “when the congress had to be adjourned after the announcement of the top five” – president, deputy president, secretary-general, deputy secretary-general and treasurer – when the “ANC NEC at the time imposed the leadership on us as members”.

Here we come to the heart of matter: undemocratic imposition of authority by ANC leadership on ANC members. Tau then refers to similar episodes of arbitrary imposition of authority by ANC leaders on the ANCYL in 2011, 2013 and 2015, when a “bogus ANCYL NEC was imposed on us” in order to “advance ANC factional politics going into the 2017 ANC Conference”, when the Youth League was used to “publicly defend certain leaders in the ANC”.

To support her argument, she refers to a memorandum written in exile by Chris Hani and others to the ANC leadership at its national elective conference at Morogoro in Tanzania in 1969, making a point which she writes is “still relevant today”.

She quotes Hani’s letter: “We are disturbed by the careerism of the ANC Leadership Abroad who have, in every sense, become professional politicians rather than professional revolutionaries. We have been forced to draw the conclusion that the payment of salaries to people working in offices is very detrimental to the revolutionary outlook of those who receive such monies.”

It’s at this point that inadequate knowledge of the history of the ANC gets in the way of her argument. She quotes Hani again when he argued – as a veteran of Umkhonto weSizwe’s military campaign together with the forces of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) in the Wankie/Sipolilo campaigns in then Rhodesia in 1967 – that he and his colleagues took “particular exception to the appointment” of certain students studying abroad (Hani mentioned Thabo Mbeki) as leaders of what he called an “ANC bogus Youth Organisation”.

This, she writes, “is what is happening at this present moment”.

The problem here is that 20 years after the Morogoro conference, no one did more to destroy democracy in a wide range of ANC internal elections than Chris Hani, in which he acted in a dictatorial way by dissolving the committees elected by all the ANC exiles in Tanzania in December 1989, only days before the unbanning of the ANC and other organisations, followed by the release of Nelson Mandela. This was a grim precedent for the future of internal democracy within the ANC and for the accountability of politicians to the people in the future, post-apartheid South Africa.

The earliest memoir of this episode, A miscarriage of democracy: The ANC security department in the 1984 mutiny in Umkhonto weSizwe, written collectively by MK members at Dakawa camp in Tanzania, was first published in print in July 1990 and has since been available for nearly 30 years. It has never once been challenged. The memoir is cited in all major histories of the ANC in exile, including Thula Simpson, Umkhonto weSizwe: The ANC’s Armed Struggle (Penguin Books, Cape Town, 2016) and is republished in full in my book, Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO (Jacana, 2009).

The memoir is available also on the site of SA History Online. It is essential reading for understanding how much the problem of undemocratic behaviour by present-day ANC leadership in South Africa goes back to the history of Umkhonto weSizwe in exile. The undemocratic behaviour cited by Tau goes back much earlier than she is aware.

The following extract records how, in September 1989, “the Regional Political Committee (RPC) – a supreme body responsible for political guidance and organization in different ANC regions – was elected into office in a meeting attended by delegates from all ANC centres in Tanzania. Sidwell Moroka [Omry Makgoale] was elected its chairperson and Mwezi Twala its organising secretary.

… The closing session, on 16 September, was filled with tension as some of the ANC leading personnel who attended, including Andrew Masondo, Graham Morodi and Willie Williams, and the members of the ANC security, showed clear expressions of disapproval of the results… On 5 October the body was dissolved by order of the chief representative, Morodi, who stated that the decision had the backing of the office of the secretary-general of the ANC, [Alfred] Nzo.

The reasons advanced were that there had been violation of procedures in the meeting and that nominees had not been screened prior to the election: meaning that the ANC security has powers to determine who is eligible for election to the political structures of the ANC. It has a right to dissolve a democratically elected structure if it dislikes those elected by the ANC membership. …

At the annual general meeting, the youth in Dakawa called for the refusal of the personnel appointed to this structure to participate in it. Members of the department of political education and the regional chairman of the youth, Sibande, also expressed their disapproval of this undemocratic action and promised to consider their positions in relation to it.

… At this point the ANC leadership collected its strength and could not restrain itself any longer. Under instruction from the NEC, Chris Hani and Stanley Mabizela arrived in Tanzania from the HQ shortly thereafter and called for ANC community meetings in Mazimbu, and on 24 December 1989, in Dakawa. …

At the meeting at Dakawa on 24 December, Chris Hani felt he could not tolerate the confrontation and howled from the rostrum at those who challenged the decision. ‘The decision is unchallenged, it is an order from the NEC,’ he shouted, beating the table with his fist. A commotion ensued as Hani’s security tried to arrest those who talked, and a reinforcement of the armed Tanzanian Field Force was called to the hall by Samson Donga. The meeting ended in confusion and the whole community was astonished by the autocratic behaviour of that ANC leadership delegation.

On 28 December a paper was circulated, officially banning nine members of different committees in Dakawa. This time again, those who sought the democratisation of the ANC were arrogantly silenced by a decree from the strong opponents of apartheid undemocracy. What an irony!”

All the authors, and many other contributors to this document, are still with us, and are available for discussion about this historic episode in the internal history of the ANC, and the history of South African democracy.

It is this history of authoritarian behaviour that formed the subject of the musical drama, Angola Cape 32, written and directed by Sello Maseko, which was seen by many people at the State Theatre in Tshwane/Pretoria in July and August 2019, and which has won major awards.

The best way to serve the members of the ANCYL is to study this history, and open up discussion. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted