ANCYL: small dog, big bite

The ANC Youth League’s membership has dropped dramatically over the past four years, from more than 500 000 to 317 000, raising major questions about its self-bestowed authority to give instructions to the treasury and the National Prosecuting Authority and tell South Africa’s sitting president to resign.

Figures presented at this year’s national conference of the youth league showed that not only had the membership figures slumped since the last congress in 2004, it had also lost 180 branches since then.

In the organisational report presented to the conference this year, the league also admitted that it had failed to win support among white, coloured and Indian youths.

Despite its waning popularity, the league exercises a mysterious power over senior politicians of the ruling party, sucking them into its rhetoric and leaving them terrified of crossing it.

It was in a closed session with the league that ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe accused the judiciary of being “counter-revolutionary”.

Several leaders of the ANC have privately said they are uncomfortable with the mannner in which the league raises issues, but this has not affected its radical public posturing, including president Julius Malema’s declaration that its members would kill for ANC president Jacob Zuma.

When ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe openly raised his voice against the league, he was subjected to a stinging public rebuke last week by league spokesperson Floyd Shivambo.

Motlanthe was attacked for his comments in newspaper interviews—and particularly his remark that Malema’s “kill for Zuma” declaration was “reckless”.

This week he met the ANC’s national working committee to address the public conflict.
Subsequently, the ANC issued a statement saying it would engage with its youth wing internally instead of in public spats.

On Thursday Shivambo said the league is taken seriously inside the ANC because it does not shy away from controversy and articulates uncomfortable truths.

He said it had the strength which came from open mobilisation of young people and critical opinion.

Responding to the sharp drop in membership, Shivambo insisted that the league’s strength does not lie in numbers. “Even when the Youth League was a small party led the likes of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu after its founding, it was very influential.

“If you remember, ANC president Alfred Xuma ignored the league’s mass action campaign and was subsequently toppled as president. They were more militant than us now.

Shivambo said the league worked through persuasion, of which the ANC’s Polokwane conference was an example.

“All the things that we lobbied for such as state-owned mines, free education to undergraduate level, the collapse of the National Youth Commission and [changing] Umsobomvu into the National Youth Development Agency were all accepted as ANC policy,” he said.

He said the decline in membership was a result of the membership system which had been centralised at head office, making it difficult for branch members to join.

Membership has now been decentralised to the provinces.

The Young Communist League’s (YCL) last audited figures in March stood at 48 000, while SACP membership stands at 67 000.

YCL is credited with having started the debate about whether or not the SACP should contest elections separately from the ANC.

YCL national secretary Buti Manamela said a party’s signed-up membership does not determine the votes it can garner from society in open elections. “The ANC has between 400 000 and 600 000 members but it is voted for by millions of voters.

Membership is not a determining factor in influence. China has a population of 1,3-billion but the ruling party, the Chinese Communist Party, only has 20-million members.”

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