The ANC Youth League: Lost in the High Seas?

By Thabile Sokupa

The role of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in the ANC’s development, renewal and growth has always been quite significant. At its formation in 1944, the ANC Youth League was not only positioned to mobilise young people behind the vision of the ANC and champion their interests, but the Congress Youth League (earlier reference to the ANCYL) was rather packaged as a formation determined to give new impetus, radicalise and energise the ANC into a fighting force for people’s liberation (Benson, 1963). The ANC Youth League’s relationship to the ANC is historically more of a political relationship than a paternal/maternal relationship, more often defined by clearly defined political programmes and strategies that sought to give the ANC new energy. The ANC Youth League’s 1944 Manifesto and 1948 Programme of Action went a long way in reshaping and revolutionising the political, organisational and ideological character of the ANC (IJAHS, 1972). Only five years after its formation, the ANC Youth League was able to influence and change the ANC into a fighting liberation movement with clearly defined ideology, strategies and methods of engagement.

The ANCYL has since its formation and during the exile years been an autonomous organisation with a profound impact on the operations of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) and on the ANC itself. It produced a number of leaders who later occupied senior positions in the ANC. Those leaders played an influential role in shaping the political thinking of the ANC, which impacted significantly on the political landscape of South Africa at different stages of the transformation processes. Although the ANCYL does influence the decisions of the ANC, there has as yet not been any comprehensive study undertaken on its work and its impact on the ANC as the “mother body”. Mokoditloa Eliakim Moemi, one of the ANCYL leaders prior to the Limpopo Conference, wrote the following about the organisation:

“The organisation has been described as a reservoir of leadership for the ANC as many of the great leaders were drawn from among the ranks of the ANCYL. It has also been considered as a preparatory school for the ANC, because most leaders were trained and prepared in the traditions, as well as practices, of the ANC within the ANCYL before they were ready to assume the leadership reins of the ANC itself... The ANCYL changed the political approach of the ANC in the mid 1940s and also assumed the role of ‘king maker’ in the ANC during the 1949 conference of the ANC by successfully lobbying for its chosen candidate to become ANC President against a popular incumbent (Moemi, 1997).”

It is clear that since the dawn of democracy in South Africa, the impact of the ANCYL has remained strongly instrumental in shaping the thinking and approach of the ANC. Although the ANCYL had made some headlines before the ANC’s (Polokwane) Limpopo Conference of December 2007, it may be argued that throughout the history of the liberation struggle, the league was instrumental in giving direction to the ANC. Its impact was countrywide, with various degrees of influence in almost all spheres of the ANC’s government. The ANCYL intended to play a major role in the election of the ANC’s leadership and its influence proved important in previous ANC conferences. It was therefore not surprising that it took the centre stage before the Limpopo Conference in influencing the proceedings as to who becomes the President of the ANC.  Without doubt, the history of the ANCYL as the “kingmaker” within the ANC is clouded in the mystique of liberation discourse. On many occasions, the ANCYL’s history was credited with acts of heroism, advancing platforms of open debates and the implementation of powerful mass-based strategies of resistance (Botiveau, 2010).

However, since post-Polokwane it has become crystal clear that the youth league under Julius Malema has become nothing more than a vainly querulous, self-aggrandisement vehicle  for its leadership elite, far removed from the realities faced by millions of young South Africans.  Sensational revelations about ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s fortune made from lucrative municipal construction tenders bear testimony to this. Malema’s latest dilemma is but a symptom of a far greater problem. There is clearly a widespread problem of self-enrichment by a horde of senior political leaders and civil servants taking place at the expense of the poor and the workers through a system of shameless patronage. This system of patronage is possible in its current form, because of a lack of internal democracy, transparency and accountability on the part of the ruling party.

Seemingly, the ANCYL has been sucked into this destructive patronage system and all they fight over is space at the dirty feeding trough. According to the outcome of recent discussions conducted by the youth research agency ‘Instant Grass’, the study found that young people "did not feel that political parties had a solid understanding of the youth" let alone from its youth wings. The relevance of the ANCYL to the young people of South Africa is clearly waning. Instead of championing the interests of the young masses as it claims, the ANCYL has been too infatuated with itself and its rather self-indulgent, paying little attention to the youth agenda. More attention is focused on internal fights or tired old arguments between opposing factions as we recently noticed in the recent provincial leadership elections.

The ANCYL ought to remember that young people are by far the largest interest group in South Africa, and that it is this segment of the population that bears the brunt of many social ills. From an observer’s point of view, young people have become increasingly restless for opportunities and are eager to claim their space, but the institutions of democracy such as the ANCYL have seemingly conspired against them. Consequently, in the current context, the youth are only useful for dirty campaign tactics like political violence, intimidation and harassment of their political leaders’ opponents.

Young people are in many ways under siege. They are marginalised by adults and the elderly from decision-making processes, faced with the prospect of health threats from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, denied employment while at the same time taking the flak for the increasing level of crime and violence. It would be desirable to have an ANCYL that is trying to improve the lives of young people of this country who were disadvantaged by the terrible history of apartheid, and continue to be disadvantaged by the lack of significant real positive change since the dawn of our democracy.

At the recent ANC national general council held in Durban, the Sunday Times reported that “expensive single malt whisky flowed in Durban’s nightspots as delegates  partied the night away. In attendance were youth league president Julius Malema, deputy minister of police Fikile Mbalula, league treasurer Pule Mabe, spokesman Floyd Shivambu and deputy president Andile Lungisa. After having spent R32 000.00 on drinks, Malema left the venue at around 6am on in a white Range Rover, while his entourage followed in high performance German sedans (timeslive, 2010).” Such excesses in the midst of so much suffering among the young people of this country are highly ill-advised. They confirm the widespread perception that the League is lost in the wilderness of vanity and the pursuit of luxurious living and it is totally oblivious of the dangers ahead.  The greats of years gone by (Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and many others) would have a real hard time looking for the authentic ANCYL under the prevailing circumstances. The remnant is a soulless vessel, a stepladder to financial wealth and influence within the ruling party. It is a vessel lost in the high seas – and worse, it is rudderless.


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  • Moemi, M.E. The African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) in South Africa: An assessment of the political strategies and approaches within the Mass Democratic Movement (1944-2006), Unpublished MA Dissertation, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, 2007, p. 1.
  • Morrow, B. Maaba, T. and Pulumani, L. Education in Exile: SOMAFCO, the ANC School in Tanzania, 1978 to 1992 (Cape Town, 2004), pp. 13-40.
  • Botiveau, R. "The ANC Youth League or the invention of a South African youth political organization", Politique Africaine, 104, September 2010, p. 8.
  • Benson, M. The African patriot: The story of the African National Congress of South Africa (London, 1963), pp. 102-118.
  • The African National Congress, 1949-1959 .The International Journal of African Historical Studies 5(2), 1972, pp. 181-202.