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The factional ghost of Julius Malema still haunts the youth league, which is torn apart by divisions, purges and disbandments, write Shanti Aboobaker and George Matlala
Johannesburg - The ANC Youth League (ANCYL) was a shadow of itself this week when it celebrated its 69th birthday in Joburg in the hallowed place it was launched in 1944 by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Anton Lembede and Walter Sisulu.
Effectively bankrupt and facing what some say reaches to R80 million in debt incurred by its previous leadership, who some claim were morally bankrupt as well, the celebrations were notably muted on Wednesday.
On the same day in April 1944, a group of young intellectuals gathered at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Joburg, now the headquarters of the Johannesburg Metro Police, to establish an organisation that would change the body politic of the ANC and the course of history.
Determined to change the ANC from a gentlemen’s organisation to a radical mass-based, defiant movement, the young men proclaimed that there would be “freedom in our lifetime”.
Later on December 15 in 1949 at the ANC conference in Mangaung, the youth league would engineer the removal of then ANC president AB Xuma, whom they felt was too conservative to allow for a more radical style of politics.
The league, under the leadership of Lembede, their first president, convinced the ANC to adopt its Programme of Action, a blueprint for political action that included boycotts, stayaways and civil disobedience. Its leaders would go on to be elected into the ANC’s national executive committee, with one of them, Walter Sisulu, becoming the secretary-general of the ANC.
Such was the power of the youth league at the time.
But 69 years later, the militant spirit and momentum which previously catapulted the league to prominence within the Congress movement, was visibly absent at its anniversary which was celebrated at the league’s birthplace this week.
In the company of ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, about a hundred provincial and regional leaders joined the league’s national task team to cut cake and drink South African sparkling wine.
This was a vast difference from the league’s former well-documented predilection for Moët & Chandon, expensive cars, celebrities and beautiful women.
However, the current temporary leadership – euphemistically called the National Task Team after disbanding the national and several structures – struggled to convince even those present to join in the singing of Struggle songs, from whence Shoot the Boer and Umshini wami were the order of the day. It seemed that without defiance, the league was a timid gathering of those under 35 in the ANC.
Perhaps the reason for the down-scaled celebrations this week could be attributed to events the night before the birthday cake-cutting ceremony.
Word spread like wildfire on the day that the Eastern Cape and Gauteng youth league provincial structures had been disbanded by the controversial task team the night before, but official comment at the event was mostly protests of ignorance.
It has now emerged that the dissolution of the two provinces has set the scene for a war for the soul of the youth league between supporters of President Jacob Zuma and his detractors in the league.
The league is likely to hold a conference after next year’s elections.
The aggrieved supporters of the removed Gauteng youth league chairman Lebo Maile are already preparing for a serious fightback. They believe that Maile was purged because he, together with the league’s former leader in the Eastern Cape Ayanda Matiti, were in line to take over the reigns of the league.
The two have been in the leadership of the league for years and are regarded as senior leaders in the organisation.
But Matiti’s close relations with former youth league president Julius Malema are said to be causing discomfort in the Zuma camp.
And, although Maile is known for opposing Malema – and even contesting him for the league’s presidency – he is close to senior ANC leaders who were opposed to Zuma at the ANC’s elective conference last December.
All Maile could say was that he accepted the decision to remove him.
But his supporters are up in arms.
“They (Maile and Matiti) are a serious threat to these guys if you look at their profiles.
“They (current league leadership) are struggling to be taken seriously by the structures and public,” a leader close to Maile said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Maile’s supporters want him to take over the league after failing to topple Malema.
“When you disband, you give people enough time to fight back. After the elections, there is going to be war. We are leaving them for now,” he added.
The two provinces – the last standing bastions of Zuma’s opposition – are also, of course, the historic feeding areas for the league, with both provinces key in the past in generating future leaders, due to the presence of Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape, and Gauteng having been the country’s economic capital for years.
In fact both Mandela and former ANC president Oliver Tambo originated from the Eastern Cape, studied at Fort Hare where their political thinking germinated, and settled in Joburg to work, where their activism reached its peak, and indeed where they launched the ANC Youth League.
The formation of the task team was necessitated by the expulsion of Malema, who is also facing multiple charges of corruption and tax evasion. But he is fighting back legally and politically through his Economic Freedom Fighters outfit.
His departure from the league was coupled with the suspension of senior league member and Malema’s lieutenant, Floyd Shivambvu, who was subsequently expelled, and the suspensions of league secretary-general, Sindiso Magaqa, and his deputy, Kenetswe Mosenogi.
It has been unclear whether Magaqa and Mosenogi see any future for themselves in the league, although there have been reports of ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, reaching out to them.
The league, which had propelled Zuma to victory at the ANC’s national conference in Polokwane in 2007, and helped remove former president Thabo Mbeki, had adopted the role of unofficial ANC kingmaker.
In recent years, its leadership regarded itself to be in the mould of the 1944 class, which were the real kingmakers in that they did not only remove a president, but changed the programmes of the ANC.
After the Mandelas, other youth league leaders have tried to sustain the kingmaker label, but fell short for often being exposed as pawns for senior leaders of the ANC.
The status of kingmaker came back again when Peter Mokaba, the controversial league president after the unbanning of the ANC supported Mbeki’s bid for the presidency in 1997.
Mbeki had also enjoyed the support of successive league presidents, such as Malusi Gigaba, as well as that of Fikile Mbalula, until Mbalula changed sides in the run-up to Polokwane in favour of Zuma.
Political analyst Steven Friedman said the league’s national task team was an undemocratic leadership, and that the democratic action would have been to call for a youth league national conference as soon as possible. He said the league had lost its way.
“To put it in perspective the days of the league as an important, innovative force ended in the 1950s and never returned.”
From the disbandment of the league’s national executive at the beginning of this year, many were sceptical about what the aims of the league’s task team were, and how it would position itself after the purging of those who did not support Zuma in Mangaung.
Questions also emerged over whether the league would continue down the road of ruin it had begun under the leadership of Malema and his cronies.
This a time when the league was associated with misappropriating state funds at the National Youth Development Agency and using its clout to gain business for its members.
There was speculation that the foot soldiers of Zuma’s campaign for a second term as ANC-president would be rewarded after their resounding victory at the party’s 53rd national conference in Mangaung.
But this was quashed to some extent by the exclusion of individuals like Pule Mabe from the league’s new task team.
Those who are in line to take over the league include former Sasco president, Mawethu Rune, former Sasco secretary-general, Magasela Mzobe, and current deputy president of Sasco Nthuthuko Mathombothi.
Magasela is from KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province.
These are young leaders who are seen to be central in Zuma’s apparent strategy to control the league, following years of acrimony between the two structures.
Like the Mandelas, Malema tried but failed to remove an ANC president, leading to calls that the league should be reined in and put in its place.
But Malema’s youth league was militant towards the ANC and often set the agenda of the nation, to the dismay of Zuma supporters, who argued that Malema and his cohorts thought they were running the country.
This week at the anniversary celebrations of the league, Ramaphosa warned its leaders not to behave like an opposition to the ANC and allow its leaders to turn into personality cults. “The ANC is about collective leadership.
“You should guard against shouting at the ANC leadership and insulting them. It is un-ANC,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether another generation of the league will ever emulate the Mandelas or grab the headlines like the Malemas.
But a new Zuma-aligned youth league, if it emerges, will spend a lot of time fending off suggestions that they are the ruling party’s youth desk or the president’s lap dogs.
But it appears that this will not be before “war” in the league.