In the past 23 years, the ANCYL has lost its revolutionary spirit, its focus and its relevance to young people, writes Onkgopotse JJ Tabane.
This week, the historic day of June 16 is upon us as we mark its 41st anniversary where young people took the lead in the struggle against apartheid. It is no exaggeration that their actions had a lasting impact on the momentum of the liberation struggle. It is because of that that we ask the question: where is the leadership of young people in the current challenges facing our country? More pointedly: has the biggest youth organisation, the ANC Youth League, that turns 73 this year, lost its relevance with young people. Can anything restore it to its former glory?
Its predecessors were, among others, Anton Lembede, OR Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. Their purpose was the resolution of the question of national liberation. They did this by forcing the ANC to adopt a militant programme of action when the elders were not so inclined.
The determination to take up arms, for example, was inspired by that generation after all peaceful means to freedom drew a blank. They were not into frivolity and were not an appendage of the main body but a catalyst for greater achievements than the mother body could pursue.
June 16, therefore, was not an isolated event that showed what this youth league could contribute to the broader struggle. It was a culmination of heroic deeds since the 1944 launch of this glorious youth movement. There was an upsurge of new leaders who joined the Struggle after 1976, including a huge contingent that decided to take up arms and skip the country – a clear determination for sacrifice for the cause. There was no doubt this generation of youth leaguers understood what their mission was and set out to fulfil it.
Once liberation dawned in 1994, a new set of challenges was born – mainly to rebuild a society ravaged by apartheid. The enemy was no longer as obvious as before, but more multipronged from issues of substance abuse to communicable diseases, from inequality and unequal access to education. Young people were starved of leadership to confront these new realities that exist side by side with political freedom.
It didn’t take long for the league to lose its way. The revolutionary spirit dissipated fast under Peter Mokaba, Malusi Gigaba, Fikile Mblalula and Julius Malema. With each taking over, it is no exaggeration that the quality of its programmes deteriorated, reaching rock bottom under Collin Maine.
The ANC as a mother body began to take the league less seriously. While some leaders accorded themselves well under the circumstances of general political apathy, they were nothing compared with the revolutionary interventions of Mandela and Sisulu. The league lost its sting.
There is no fundamental policy shift over the past 23 years taken by the democratic state that was as a result of the intervention of the league. Even the areas which stir the youth, such as higher education, were championed more by the likes of the SA Students’ Congress than by the league. It failed to lobby for the simplest of things, such as the provision of sanitary towels for young women, or even the realisation of free education for all. Its a shame what picture the league has painted about its mission for existence.
Young people in the mould of the now defunct SA Students Organisation, and even the SA National Students Congress were known for high-level policy articulation in the build-up to freedom. While contributing to the shaping of ANC policy and dialogues towards a free society and the achievement of the National Democratic Revolution, the current youth league is yet to release a single policy position worth looking at. It has instead mastered the art of public insult as a modus operandi of discourse and engagement. This is why they were caught napping by the uprisings of #FeesMustFall – the only recognisable student struggles worthy of note since 1976.
The league and, indeed, the entire progressive youth alliance were found napping – even worse, it had a pathetic response to this crisis, even seeking to hijack it as their own. Everyone knows this struggle had nothing to do with them but was as a direct consequence of the vacuum the ANCYL has created over the past 23 years. The league had a golden opportunity since the passing of the free education resolution of the ANC conference in Polokwane. It squandered this by never raising the issue with the ANC about implementing this.
Nine years later they are so blinded by their support for President (Jacob) Zuma that they failed to make him implement the simplest of resolutions – free education for all. That is why they have become irrelevant to the majority of young people. Quite frankly, this lot has betrayed its mission fundamentally.
It is not necessary to speak of how captured this generation is. The ANC leadership in general is also to blame as it created no environment for a dynamic and radical youth league to flourish and saw it as voting cattle. When the current leadership was elected, Zuma and (Cyril) Ramaphosa gave them marching orders to defend the ANC as if that is the only thing they are good for. They didn’t inspire them to emulate the generations that came before them.
If they did, that would have seen the youth demand this current leadership step aside and install leaders with a better vision to rescue the liberation movement from the clutches of its current loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the people whose expectations are dashed daily. One hopes the 41st anniversary of the 1976 uprisings will reignite youth leaders who can rediscover their mission and fulfil it for the sake of our future.
* Tabane is Author of Lets Talk Frankly and Host of Power Perspective on Power 98.7 Sundays to Thursdays 9pm to 12am
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.