by Tasneem Essop
Earlier this week a poster was circulated on social media advertising an ANC National Conference welcoming party that would be co-hosted by the President of the ANC Youth League, Collen Maine. It appeared that the poster was met by a sense of bitter disappointment from many who consider themselves activists of the ANCYL, for others it was met with the usual laughter that has come to characterise discussions about the Youth League.
The ANCYL quickly moved to distance itself from ‘organising’ the event. The accuracy of this claim is not unimportant, but what matters most is firstly, that it is believable that the ANCYL would organise and host such an occasion and secondly, that it highlighted how muted the Youth League is and raised questions about just how far it has declined in prominence on the national political stage.
There are numerous roles that the ANCYL could occupy moving towards an ever-important elective conference of the ruling party. They could have chosen to play a decisive role in shaping the future leadership of the ANC. If that was too factional a cause, they could have elected to try and shift the mark in terms of policy discussions with a clear agenda that would alter positions in relation to the youth and youth politics. This could range from talking about how to implement radical change, to how to deal with youth unemployment or even confronting the fourth industrial revolution. Instead, as the ANC heads to conference, the ANCYL is not seen as a legitimate voice for the youth inside and outside of the ANC Alliance.
The ANCYL’s role as a protagonist during conferences is often remembered nostalgically with references to the ‘1949 generation’ who completely shifted the political dynamics in the ANC and pushed in a new and militant leadership at a crucial moment in the country’s history. Others remember the ANCYL from 2005 that was heavily involved in shoring up support for Zuma in the campaign for the presidency. The ANCYL from 2008 represented a critical break in the politics of the ANC and the Alliance in their call for ‘economic freedom in our lifetime’.
There are many contestations over these narratives and the history of the ANCYL at these different moments; these contestations have political stakes attached to them and are important in highlighting the complexities of youth politics in the ANC. The post-1994 Youth League has been described by some as nothing more than a young and aspirant group of politicians. Noor Nieftagodien in a 2015 journal article described them as ‘tamed young lions’ attempting to gain access to state power and resources. The Youth League generation led by Julius Malema may not have been seen as tamed but they were criticised at length for their apparent consumerism and involvement in the wider patronage structures in the ANC.
Yet whatever the critiques and contestations, it is hard to deny the important role that the Youth League has played at crucial moments. This is why we need to unpack the relegation of the ANCYL to welcoming party hosts at what is another one of these points in history. To be clear, the party poster is simply a representation of the blank pages that the ANCYL is leaving in relation to the upcoming ANC Conference. In this sense, it is not even about the party but rather that one is hard-pressed to find other ways that the ANCYL is playing its part in the politics of the day.
This is happening within a national context where youth politics are being reconfigured and reimagined in various ways. Some of these reconfigurations are happening in forms that are distant from the ANCYL (although not necessarily completely outside of it or the ANC), whilst other shifts are firmly external from the politics of the Congress movement. The specific sets of issues that are facing young people in South Africa are being met with new claims against and within the current political system. These new claims include those made through contentious moments such as protest but also through the every-day of political life in South Africa and the conversations that are coming to shape the narratives of the future.
In these conversations, the ANCYL is still firmly part of the social and political life in many communities across the country. However, at a national level it is hard to see how they are tangibly influencing public or internal ANC discussions, or how what happens at the different levels comes to coalesce into a clear political project. The ANCYL’s support for a particular candidate in the run-up to the conference – often taking absurd forms, like arguing that the judiciary is influencing internal ANC politics - has been made clear, but their actual political power and influence have been significantly muted.
What does it mean for the ANC when its Youth League is so absent from its own politics at such a key moment? What does it mean for youth politics?
Historically, youth politics has survived, through various periods, without the ANCYL. The youth is often seen as having reimaginative role in politics and society. At the very least then, the youth of the ANC should play a reimaginative role in the party. So whilst forms of youth politics continue, one essential factor that is missing from the upcoming conference is precisely this kind of reimagining and the forging of new political discourses from the ANC Youth League.
* Tasneem Essop is an assistant researcher based at the SWOP Institute at Wits University, Johannesburg. Her current work focuses mostly on popular politics and political organisations. She has been involved as an activist in various movements in her personal capacity. Tasneem is on Twitter @TasneemEssop_”