Factionalism or Malema's brand: What ruined the ANCYL?
The ANC Youth League is the "weakest it has ever been": it is beset by factionalism, conspicuous wealth accumulation, patronage and the use of money in electing leaders, and gatekeeping along factional lines. And former youth league president-cum-farmer, Julius Malema, is mostly to blame.
This is according to the newly appointed spokesperson of the national task team, appointed by the ANC to oversee the renewal of the youth league, Bandile Masuku.
In an interview with the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday, a day after the task team announced its decision to disband the provincial leadership of the league in four provinces, Masuku explained how the organisation was nothing but a shell in many regions, with branches that existed only for the purposes of elective conferences.
He decried the fact that the youth league has come to represent little more than a vehicle for employment for jobless young people. And while it was reported to the ANC's national conference at Mangaung in December 2012 that the youth league had a membership of over 350 000, the task team has its doubts that many – if any – of these members were involved in any real political work.
The national task team was appointed by the ANC in February this year after the disbandment of the youth league's national executive to rebuild and reposition the league.
To understand how the task team came to oversee the league, Masuku said, it was necessary to revisit the 2008 elective conference, when Malema was elected president.
The youth league underwent a process of radical militarisation, and campaigned for the nationalisation of mines and land expropriation without compensation.
The task team has no intention of changing how the youth league wants to influence the ANC on these policy issues, Masuku said.
Instead, it wants to present these arguments in a way that is not "vulgar".
Always at the helm, through good policy choices and controversial statements, was Malema, whose controversy was tolerated by the ANC, until his loyalty towards President Jacob Zuma began to wane.
Malema was expelled from the ANC in February 2012.
Little more than a year later, the ANC disbanded the youth league's national executive committee, in a move widely seen as a possible purge of those disloyal to Zuma.
The national task team is slowly but surely unpicking Malema's legacy, said Masuku. On Monday, the task team announced the disbandment of four provincial structures – in Limpopo, the Free State, Northern Cape, and the North West. The provincial executive committees of the ANC Youth League in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape and Mpumalanga have already been disbanded.
The ANC has always maintained the move was to quell ill-discipline in the league and to bring unity to the organisation, insisting that it was not purging the league of Zuma's perceived political foes.
Masuku agreed, and said the idea that Malema's supporters – who were likely to be critical of Zuma – were being purged, was false.
"Even on the national task team there are members who did not support Zuma's bid for re-election at Manguang," he said.
Instead of being purged of his supporters, the youth league needs to stop being associated with Malema's brand, said Masuku. He said visits by the task team to the youth league's regional offices revealed several disturbing trends, including well-established "personality cults".
"There are people in the regions, who worship individuals over the organisation."
He said support for Malema was "not really" a factor in deciding which structures to disband, although the personality-cult theme was. Moreover, Masuku said, the task team received numerous complaints from youth league members on the ground in those provinces where the leadership was disbanded. The issues raised were varied and serious.
"Issues of patronage, the usage of money in organisational activities and getting members elected; factionalism, which has become an entrenched problem in the ANC; divisions – which were sharper in the run-up to the Mangaung elective conference – and gatekeeping: people in the organisation who were seen to disagree with Malema were actually kept out of the registry of the organisation," he said.
Even the ANC has these problems, he said. Those at the other end of "gatekeeping" in the league were inevitably those who disagreed with Malema's ways.
"And it's not about disagreement on policy issues: it's about how [Malema] presented issues and how he did his organisational work, which became a problem for many people. We have observed, generally in the ANC, that a greater social distance has been created between ordinary members and leaders. I think the issue [is] ... conspicuous consumption and opulence, and people living large.
"People feel excluded from the mainstream [when] leaders are wealthy but others cannot even afford to buy a bar of soap," he said.
But allowing the youth league to go to an elective conference and test Malema's popularity would not have been enough: the task team has decided that the organisation needs to be systematically rebuilt, branch by branch, and no "cosmetic change of leadership" will fix the problems Malema left behind.
"At some branches you find there is no formal induction of members; no organisational programmes; no political education. That's not the type of youth league that we want."
This means that elective conferences will have to be held at every level – from regional to national – and this is a costly exercise. Masuku revealed that the entire process is likely to cost the youth league R2.2-billion, and the youth league is not exactly liquid.
Masuku would not reveal just how much was in the youth league's bank account, but he said the ANC had taken over the administration of its accounts and the paying off of its debts.
The true state of the ANC Youth League's finances was revealed in court last week, when an application to have it liquidated was brought by a creditor.
The youth league opposed the application on the basis that it had no assets or funds to pay the R15-million debt.
This took place in the same week that Malema's farm was auctioned off to pay his own debts to the tax man. It fetched a cool R2.5-million. The obvious irony aside, to what extent can the youth league's woes, both financial and organisational, be blamed on its former leader?
To a large extent, according to Masuku. But the problems he may have started are also found in the mother body, the ANC, and so a process of correcting all of the organisation's faults will have to take place, he explained.
"There is an extent to which you could say it is Malema's fault, that we have an organisation like this youth league. But you have similar problems in the ANC. So I view the task of rebuilding the organisation as one that will involve the ANC."
It's a process that's likely never to involve Malema again. On Tuesday, he announced the formation of a party political platform called the Economic Freedom Fighters, in a move some viewed as the soft launch of the next leg of his political career. Malema said he did this because the ANC would never be able to solve the country's problems.
For senior political analyst at Political Analysis South Africa, Mzoxolo Mpolase, the rebuilding of Malema's once-beloved youth league is a vindication for those who have always said he didn't really represent the youth. The equating of Malema's fame with the sentiment of young people in the ANC was a misnomer, he said, and the state of the youth league was evidence of that.
But his exit does not mean that the entire youth league needs to be disbanded.
"There might be a need to professionalise it. It was always a good breeding ground for politicians in the ANC – but it has failed to do that [produce good leaders] recently," said Mpolase.
"Instead, it has typically become a vehicle for those who want to expedite their rise in the ANC."
The youth league is supposed to be a microcosm of the ANC, and while it has managed to maintain this state from time to time at national level, this has not been the case at branch level.
As for the youth league's relevance, Mpolase believes it will have to work hard to establish itself in South African society.
"It's managed to establish itself at universities, or universities of technology, but no further than that. And that calls its legitimacy into question."