The formation and the announcement of the ANC Youth League national youth task team on 8 April has brought back the much needed discussion of youth leadership in the country. The primary objective of the task team is to deliver the youth league’s long-awaited congress, which has been postponed several times now. The revival of a once powerful political force in South Africa is on the cards. One cannot forget the vibrant youth league coming from way back, the league of Anton Lembede with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo to the more recent youth league under the likes of Melusi Gigaba, Fikile Mbalula and lastly Julius Malema.
It is not a secret that the youth league has been in disarray for almost 10 years since the departure of former president Julius Malema, now the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). It is concerning that the main worries about the formation of this task team raised by the press and general public are that it must not fall into the party factions’ fights, it must not be used by the older comrades and that it must make sure it is independent. While these are legitimate worries, they are not the most important ones, at least when it concerns the struggles of young people.
Due to the crisis of leadership in the ANC itself, it is likely that this “revival” might end up being used as a “political knife” in the political battles of the party as youth league convener Nonceba Mhlauli conveyed. This may also be made easier by the league’s leadership crisis in recent years, with the discontinuity and inconsistency that we saw with its leadership being disbanded, reinstated and changed, et cetera. Another worry that might contribute to this is whether the radical history and memory of the youth league will not be passed on to the new leadership. Massive changes in the struggles of young people have occurred and this will require a much deeper understanding on which direction the youth league takes going forward.
The youth league has been absent in recent crucial struggles of young people. The 2015/2016 Fees Must Fall (FMF) movement and this year’s uprisings and struggles – of learners at schools, against youth unemployment which is at its worst, against gender-based violence, the struggles for the implementation of a basic income grant – the list goes on. Youth development agencies and youth governance structures such as the National Youth Development Agency have been in crisis, with young people taking the process to court. The National Youth Policy (2030) is a complete joke and a copy and paste of the National Youth Policy (2015).
The task team must not only focus on rebuilding the leadership structures, which might end up just being a step ladder to positions of power in the ANC, but it must also focus on reviving itself as the leading movement of young people in South Africa, a movement that has taken to the streets to fight for free education, against youth unemployment and for the interests of young people before.
It is important that the task team doesn’t take a linear position that says, first we fix the leadership crisis then, second we organize and mobilise to fight for young people’s interests. Young people have borne the brunt of the economic woes of this country. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated these woes with the chaos we saw in public schooling, with closure and opening schools, young people being the first in the retrenchment lines due to the “last in, first out principle” and continuous FMF protests.
The youth league should not wait until it is “organised” or “ready” to mount a struggle. The fight is already going on and it has been on for some time. Young people in the townships, at universities and at workplaces have been part of social struggles. There is need for a youth movement in the political arena that is able to organise young people, to unify and give a sense amongst young people that the struggle of a young person who is financially excluded at Wits is the same struggle of a young person in the township or rural areas who needs that R350 unemployment grant and the same for young women and girls fighting against gender-based violence.
It is important then to ask whether the youth league will bounce back and return to the political force we have known it to be. Historically in South Africa, groups that lose power once never seem to be able to bounce back. Maybe the reason the youth league is important is that no form of national youth organisation has risen in the period of its disarray. The rise of the EFF has been visible but it has not fully taken over the position that was occupied by the youth league in our townships and rural areas.
The youth league might not be the answer to the struggles of young people and it might not go back to its glory days and be a political force. But any effort to build a youth organization, bring back the representative structures that have been absent to guide the struggles of young people and to respond to the onslaught on young people, surely presents a moment of hope.