It started off looking like a schoolyard spat, with finger-wagging and tongue-pulling. But then the ANC Youth League took a proverbial liberty when it criticised the South African Communist Party (SACP) general secretary and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande for failing to come up with a plan to implement free education. It was an unexpected and painful jab and the Young Communist League, the youth wing of the SACP, interpreted it as an attack on communists.
It also came at a time when SACP leaders appear to be falling out of favour with the nationalists in the ANC, ahead of what could be another vicious leadership succession race.
The squabble seems to be a proxy fight on behalf of senior leaders of the ANC-led alliance. The youth league is purportedly backed by the so-called Premier League: the Free State’s Ace Magashule, North West’s Supra Mahumapelo and Mpumalanga’s David Mabuza, who are also ANC chairpersons in their respective provinces – and are all self-confessed nationalists and perceived to be anticommunists.
It has been a week of back and forth between the two youth bodies. They both deny there is a fight, but it is impossible to miss the bloody noses their altercations have caused.
Nationally, the youth and communist leagues may be trying to keep the peace, but there is a street fight in KwaZulu-Natal. There the youth league publicly stated that the SACP was of no use to the ANC and the young communists hit back, accusing the youth league of being a clique bent on an anticommunist crusade.
The brawl in the province has a lot to do with provincial leadership dynamics. The youth league has punted ANC provincial secretary Sihle Zikalala as the preferred chairperson candidate for next month’s congress but the province’s young communists favour the incumbent, Senzo Mchunu.
Insiders in both organisations concede that the tensions are likely to worsen and spread as the race towards the ANC’s elective conference in 2017 heats up.
The Mail & Guardian spoke to the communist league national secretary, Mluleki Dlelanga, and to the youth league secretary general, Njabulo Nzuza, about the spat.
Mluleki Dlelanga, what is behind this war of words between the youth and communist leagues?
I can safely say there is no such [war]. But I am saying, do not gamble with the unity of the Progressive Youth Alliance [a group of youth structures belonging to ANC-led alliance partners]. We are committed to unity, but where one partner does something which we feel is “uncongress” tradition, we have got a responsibility to say “No, this is not how things are done.”
What is ‘uncongress’ tradition?
Uncongress tradition is to insult senior congress leaders in the media without engaging [with] them.
Who did that?
For instance, when the youth league officials issued a statement on the call for a free education. Yes, as the communist league we want free education. Yes, as the communist league we welcome a progressive statement by the minister of higher education and training on the call for free education. As the communist league, we say we don’t only need a free education, we need a compulsory and qualitative education for the youth of our country.
You are telling the youth league not to attack Nzimande?
Yes. We don’t attack their leaders. We don’t attack their president. Anyway, an attack on a minister of the ANC – as Comrade Nzimande is a member of the ANC’s national executive committee and national working committee – is an attack on the president of the ANC.
So now what?
We call [on] them not to fall in the same trap which the Julius-led [Malema, former youth league president] group once fell in. We expect them to rise above that as they said they are apologising for the wrong that they did. They must not continue [doing] the wrong things.
Young Communist League national secretary Mluleki Dlelanga. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)
Why do you think they are attacking Nzimande?
We think that the youth league is informed by a personal hatred of the communists.
By certain elements which are anticommunist in the youth league.
Do you believe the youth league leadership is backed by the so-called Premier League?
We only know of the Premier Soccer League and we know the chairperson is Dr Irvin Khoza. But there is a so-called Premier League, which we read about in the papers. We said if this so-called Premier League exists in the ANC then that should be crushed because that is a faction and we hate factions and factionalists. The young communissts will be at the forefront of crushing all factions that seek to eat the ANC away.
Do you believe the youth league is factional?
We are worried about the factional behaviour of the youth league. We were taken aback [by it].
Are they acting on their own?
We think there are people who are using these brand-new leaders for their own agenda.
Who are these people?
We are still working on that, but you can see that there are handlers who are handling this brand-new leadership.
ANC Youth League secretary general Njabulo Nzuza. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)
Njabulo Nzuza, is there tension between the youth league and the communist league?
I just came from a meeting now with the secretary of the communist league. I can confirm that there is really no tension. As the youth league, we have no problem with the communist league. Whatever tension there is, we are going to be resolving it because we are going to have a meeting with them quite soon, probably sometime next week.
The communist league has accused the youth league of attacking Nzimande. Why are you doing this?
We did not attack minister Nzimande. He was appointed in 2009 and since then he has never given us or the country a plan as to how we can achieve free education. It is not an attack, it is a fact.
But he is a deployee of the ANC. Aren’t you attacking the ANC?
No, it is not attacking the ANC. When you make a cry for better efficiency, that is what we are here for: to say this is how things can be done better; to say you have not done this, or this is how you should have done this. When you attack an organisation, you discredit it. We are not discrediting the ANC.
Who are the youth league handlers that the communist league allege are behind your public statements?
I don’t have a handler. We are not being handled. If we were being handled would we be able to raise issues so sharply?
What about the Premier League?
There is one notion that we have been dispelling for quite a long time. There is this thing called the Premier League. I, for one, have not met with any of those premiers going to the national congress. The first time I met Premier Supra Mahumapelo [of North West] was when we were drafting resolutions.
Many link the tension between you and the communist league to a proxy war for the ANC’s 2017 national elective congress race. Who is the youth league’s preferred candidate to lead the ANC?
We have not pronounced on this. We note a lot of media misquotations that have gone out there. One said we are supporting a third term for President Jacob Zuma, which we have not pronounced on. The youth league is fresh from its conference – we have not had one single meeting to discuss our approach to 2017.
There are reports that the youth league have told deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa they would not support him to be ANC president in 2017.
I spoke to the league in the province and they assured me no such meeting took place. There was a briefing meeting. There was never a meeting where he was told not to stand.
The communist league accuses you of continuing Malema’s tradition of attacking ANC-led alliance partners. Is this true?
We are not going to be involved in any media mudslinging with them. They are entitled to their views. Obviously when we feel their views are derogatory, it remains the task of the youth league to go to them and engage them as part of Progressive Youth Alliance components.