Former ANC Youth League deputy president Ronald Lamola has emerged as the frontrunner for the league's presidency, as a campaign gains momentum to ensure some of the disbanded national executive committee (NEC) members make a comeback.
Lamola, once a close ally of expelled youth league president Julius Malema (now the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters), is working with a group of other former leaders to take back control of the league from the ANC-appointed national task team (NTT), which some have accused of ineptitude and killing the soul of the league.
Lamola was coy about the comeback reports.
"I can't confirm or deny that one," he said. "I believe whoever is elected by the structures of the youth league will redeem our generation. It seems a seed is being planted to paint us as a generation of the ill-disciplined."
Lamola recently wrote to ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, accusing the NTT of "liquidating" the league by disbanding 90% of its structures and of "distorting history for political expediency".
Eastern Cape youth league leader Mziwonke Ndabeni confirmed knowledge of Lamola's plans for a comeback and welcomed the move. "It would be a very good thing for the youth league," Ndabeni said.
He said Lamola, who is a practising lawyer, was effective as acting president.
"Within that short space of time he demonstrated a serious capability of being a leader of young people," Ndabeni said. "He is one of those people I really admire in the youth league, one of the intellectuals.
"But he will be subjected to democratic processes like everyone else."
NTT spokesperson Bandile Masuku disagreed. "Lamola refused to lead when he was supposed to lead," he said, referring to the time when Lamola refused to be called acting president because he still recognised the expelled Malema as president.
"If he wants to stand and contest, he must go to a branch like anyone else and stop making accusations."
Lamola denied refusing to act as president.
His latest bid to head the league comes as the battle for control is heating up. Some former leaders who are still under 35 years of age have shown a rekindled interest in the league.
The NTT is said to be already divided over what to do about the disbanded ANC structures, but Masuku sought to dilute that allegation.
Backgrounds and experiences
"I think divisions is a strong word," he said. "When we make decisions, we have differences, of course, like in any other organisation. But once we take a decision, the cohesion of the organisation stands.
"I'm not entirely happy; we could do more. We need more time to really gel with one another because we are from different backgrounds and experiences. We could be at a better stage with time."
A former youth league NEC member with strong ties to Luthuli House said Lamola was buoyed by the knowledge that some senior ANC leaders, including President Jacob Zuma, were open to giving him a second chance at the helm.
"Lamola is respectful, very humble and will toe the line," said the former youth leader. "To a leader like Zuma, that quality is very important."
Some who have also been aspirant youth league presidents, such as former treasurer general Pule Mabe, Andile Lungisa and Mduduzi Manana, do not necessarily support Lamola's candidacy but may be forced to work with him, the former youth leader said.
"In all fairness, they don't want him but they won't be left with too much of a choice. These are the people who used to say elders must be listened to. They can't change that now."
After last December's ANC Mangaung conference, at which the league campaigned for then ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe to unseat Zuma, Lamola visited Zuma's Nkandla home to mend relations.
He later pledged that, under his leadership, the league would quell the anarchy that characterised the organisation during and after Malema's disciplinary case.
"We are breaking away from that anarchy," he said. "The league has to operate within its mother body."
In June, he called on young people not to support the EFF.
But the NTT has a strategy to ensure that the league's old guard doesn't come back. The NTT is hoping that by the time the league's elective conference finally rolls around, probably in December next year, many leaders of the old guard it deems problematic will be ineligible to lead because of their age.
For Lamola, though, that won't be an issue. At 29, he's well within the required age to lead the league.
"I still have six years I can lead this organisation," he said. "We cannot be wished away. We're still around."
Three weeks ago Lungisa also attacked the NTT, calling the team a "useless structure with no experience", in an interview with the New Age.
He said he was still keen to lead the league.
"I am still within the age limit to become the league president but let's wait and see what will happen," he said.
Unhappiness with the disbandment of all nine provincial leaderships intensified tensions that had already built up from the time Malema was expelled in 2012.
But one former NEC member came to the NTT's defence, saying the team did exactly what the ANC mandate sought to achieve.
"The reality is that the Mangaung conference gave them a mandate to revamp youth league structures," he said. "They wouldn't be able to do that without disbanding the structures."
But, with that achieved, "they're struggling with revamping structures. The ANC gave them a heavy mandate but did not follow up with resources. They don't have money."
Masuku agreed: "Yes, indeed, we need resources, we need money. It has been estimated that this whole work will cost between R1.5-billion and R2-billion to organise nine provincial conferences, around 52 regional conferences and then a national conference."
An ANC Limpopo leader who served under Malema said Lamola stood no chance of returning to the leadership.
"He has not gained the respect of elders because of the way he behaved in the past. Him going to Nkandla was not legitimate; it was a selfish move to save himself."
The Limpopo leader said one of the key challenges to Lamola's ambitions is that his own province of Mpumalanga might not support him.
The former youth league NEC member said that, although many criticised the NTT's disbandment of provincial leaderships, this was a route the Lamola-led youth league would take.
"The youth league was already in a state of paralysis," the former leader said. "Everything they [NTT] found is what we already found.
"The youth league was in a shambles. The reality is that Julius held it together because of his character.
"We inherited this organisation like that in 2008. Remember in 2008 the congress collapsed? It was that culture of vote rigging, buying votes and gatekeeping. We continued with that culture."
But the leader said the NTT had "no ideas of their own" and were run by the ANC NEC.
"These ones listen to the mother body and do as they're told. Maybe the good thing out of this is that they'll run and work for the ANC, which is why the party has got a youth league anyway."
How the ANC is rebooting the youth league
If dissolving all nine ANC Youth League provincial executive committees sounds like an extreme solution, that's because it was necessary, says the national task team (NTT) appointed by the ANC to clean up the league after the end of Julius Malema's leadership.
"We inherited an empty shell," said spokesperson Bandile Masuku. He uses polite language to describe the problems: gatekeeping, factionalism, division.
But others speak of a nearly defunct organisation in some provinces, where branches were disbanded arbitrarily, dissenting views were quashed and elected leaders ran no programmes – that's if they were elected in the first place. The youth league in the Northern Cape had not held elections since 2009, according to Masuku.
Some weren't all bad. The Eastern Cape, for instance, was solid structurally but riven by factionalism.
Limpopo: Taking out Limpopo first, Malema's home ground, was a no-brainer for the ANC. Masuku said the province was responsible for busing in protesters to Luthuli House for Malema's disciplinary hearings.
Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape: Their provincial executive committees had been dissolved in 2011 and provincial task teams put in place. When the NTT took over, they found little work had been done by these. KwaZulu-Natal's task team was incorrectly made up of regional leaders. The Western Cape tried to hold a provincial conference twice with no success and Mpumalanga's relationship with the ANC broke down. New task teams were put in place by the NTT.
North West, Free State and the Northern Cape: The next to get the chop in June, shortly after the NTT was appointed, these were shut down for either deep divisions or a lack of activity.
Gauteng and Eastern Cape: The last provinces standing received news of their disbanding earlier this month, thanks to deep divisions within both. They are both appealing the decision with the ANC, although task teams have been put in place. – Verashni Pillay