Factional battles and Jacob Zuma’s fight for survival within the ANC were responsible in part for the ANC not thinking ahead to the 2014 elections.
How has the ANC allowed itself to get into a dangerous position without a functioning youth league just months before a key general election with more young voters than ever before?
Factions in the party were too busy fighting for survival to think long-term, is one answer.
"No one was thinking of national elections at that time, they were thinking about ANC elections," said political analyst Professor Steven Friedman, referring to disciplinary processes that were started against problematic youth league leaders ahead of the party’s key election conference in Mangaung in December 2012. "They didn’t want to lose at Mangaung. There were bigger priorities. Now that they have won, the priority is national elections."
The problem of a crippled youth league ahead of elections is not one that would have immediately struck the ANC when they first took the decision to take disciplinary action against its leaders in August 2011.
Former youth league president Julius Malema, along with his sidekick Floyd Shivambu, were at the forefront of a call for change in president Jacob Zuma’s leadership ahead of the party’s elective conference in Mangaung in December. The party acted in part by suspending Malema, Shivambu and youth league secretary general Sindiso Magaqa on a number of charges.
The process of ousting Malema took a long time – until after Mangaung. The conclusion of that process has seen all provincial structures of the youth league effectively placed under administration, with an ANC-appointed National Task Team (NTT) putting provincial task teams in place across the country to clean out what they say is the rot and factionalism that Malema and co left in their wake.
But now, with just months till key national elections for the ruling party, all youth league provincial structures are disbanded and the ANC will have a tougher time gaining the youth vote in next year’s elections, according to analysts and those inside the league.
"Young people are energetic and have more time than older people," said Friedman. "If that dimension is taken away there is no doubt that this does weaken the ANC."
Friedman noted that former youth league president and current Sports and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula did a lot in getting the youth vote for the ANC in the previous election.
"I can’t imagine the youth league in its current form doing that," he said.
Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni has said the ANC had always relied in elections on the energy of league members, some of whom were unemployed and therefore free to campaign to rally voters on its behalf.
The body’s national executive committee (NEC) was dissolved in March this year. Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape provincial executive committees (PECs) followed soon after and in June Limpopo, North West, the Free State and the Northern Cape’s PECs were disbanded. Gauteng and the Eastern Cape are the latest to join the list this month, according to NTT spokesperson Bandile Masuku.
Sources within the NTT and the ANC have told the Mail & Guardian it was impossible to change the situation without clearing out the current leadership and starting from scratch.
But this leaves the ANC weakened just months before the election.
"In my experience of being in the youth league for over 18 years it is very difficult to build a structure once you have disbanded it," said Eastern Cape youth league secretary Mziwonke Ndabeni. His province was one of the last standing to get the axe.
He pointed to the Western Cape PEC that was disbanded by Malema’s leadership in 2011. When the NTT took over this year the province was still in shambles and the task team put in place under Malema had to be reconstituted.
It will not be possible for the NTT, who are running the league at present, to tick off all the time-consuming processes to get to an elective congress before the April poll.
This means the ANC will be campaigning for elections with a weakened youth body run wholly by temporary, unelected leaders in all provinces.
"You’re building a new organisation so to speak which to us poses a serious challenge going forward because youth politics in South Africa is a contested terrain," said Ndabeni. "There are political formations in SA in existence contesting this space as well. If the youth league is inward-looking, busy disbanding itself and busy expelling others, the space will be occupied by other youth formations."
Malema went on to form the Economic Freedom Fighters party (EFF), which Ndabeni pointed to as one challenge for the youth vote.
But the NTT says it won’t let election of formal leaders stop the league’s campaigning ahead of elections. It is mobilising thousands of volunteers to campaign on the streets. One member said Gauteng had 70 000 volunteers alone while Ndabeni said the Eastern Cape had about 7 000.
"We’re not engaging in ‘profile-building’ exercises so the media doesn’t hear about it, but we’re there," said one NTT member, referring to the youth league’s vociferous positions on various matters and rowdy media presence in the past.
But Friedman wondered if the volunteer army was not a "bunch of flunkies doing what Luthuli house" requested: a far cry from the previous dynamism of the league.
Either way, the party under Zuma is still set on wooing the 4-million young voters who are yet to register. At least 20% of the voting population in 2014 will be young people, and some of them first-time voters.
"Their votes count immensely and must not be wasted," said Zuma at a muted celebration of the league’s 69th birthday in Limpopo recently.
Without the league’s usual energy, they will have their work cut out for them – not that it will cost them the election.
As another analyst, Professor John Daniel, said: "All it means they will have less of a majority than they did last time."