Youth fighting uphill: The example of South Africa's legendary ANC party

Eva Dadrian , Sunday 11 Mar 2012

Youth who dare challenge their elders in South Africa - as well as the US, Tunisia, Egypt and a slew of other countries - struggle both for a better world and to keep their careers alive

This year, South Africa celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the African National Congress, which has been the dominant party since the end of apartheid in 1994.

The day-long celebrations held in the stadium of Bloemfontein culminated in a midnight ceremony in the very church where black intellectuals and activists, seeking the enforcement of human rights, founded the party in 1912. 

Due to poor health, Nelson Mandela – who was jailed for 27 years by the white supremacist regime and later became the country’s first black president – was unable to grace the celebrations with his presence, but former heads of state, African leaders, kings and chieftains attended the ceremony marking the birth of Africa’s oldest national movement.

The centenary celebrations came at a time when the ANC is mired in factional battles. In fact, it is the most divided it has ever seen – with leadership challenged by the younger generation.

It all started with the shocking political demise of Thabo Mbeki, then-leader of the ANC. With the loss of the strongman, who served two terms as the second post-apartheid president (1999-2008), the party began to experience serious internal divisions over leadership, ideological conflict and alleged corruption.

Leadership divisions weakened the party more so when prominent ANC members severed their ties and founded the Congress of the People (COPE), under the leadership of former defence minister, Mosiua Letoka.

As soon as the party replaced Thabo Mbeki with Jacob Zuma, a series of shady scandals and deals emerged, tarnishing the party of Nelson Mandela and liberation. Some of its top members were accused of being involved in corruption and fraud, such as the Oilgate scandal and the R55 (roughly $7.27) billion arms deal. Other leading political figures were accused of sexual misconduct.

Today, much is at stake for the ruling party and if the ANC is criticised for a number of political missteps: first and foremost for having failed to deliver fundamental public services to the large majority of poverty-stricken, black South Africans living in rundown townships.

In addition to the corruption scandals, the younger generation of South Africans believe that the ANC has failed to rid the country of capitalism and white supremacy. In 2010, Julius Malema, then president of the ANC Youth League, called for economic reforms, as well as radical social policies, such as nationalising the mining industry and the seizure of white-owned land.  

For many observers, Malema’s call was double-edged. Honourably, he demanded reform from ANC leadership, which he said allowed the white minority to dominate the country’s economy. But he also declared a tough, economic war on the white minority, which held the purse strings. Addressing a crowd of young supporters Malema modified Nelson Mandela’s slogan “Freedom in our lifetime” to “Economic freedom in our lifetime.”

For the ANC this was enough to tilt the scales and with the national elective conference looming on the horizon of December 2012: the enfant terrible of the ANC had to be quieted for the good of the party.

First, Malema, was suspended from the ANC Youth League for bringing the ANC into disrepute, sowing divisions, undermining the presidency and by calling for a regime change in neighbouring Botswana. Now, the suspension was upheld and Malema was found guilty of bringing two serious offencesin less than two years by the ANC’s national disciplinary committee (NDC) and was axed from the party for 5 years. According to the NDC chairperson, Julius Malema has shown “lack of remorse and also disrespect for the ANC constitution and its structures.” In one of his fiery speeches in January, Julius Malama referred to the ANC leaders as “baboons,” and questioned their ability to deliver on the party’s promises.

Although Malema has struggled to draw crowds since he was suspended from the party, he remains defiant and plans to fight back. His supporters say that Ju Ju, as Malema is called familiarly, is ready to take his fight to the ANC national elective conference in Bloemfontein this December.

Known as the party’s kingmaker, Julius Malema was instrumental in ousting Thabo Mbeki as party leader back in 2007 in favour of Jacob Zuma. The move helped Jacob Zuma to sweep to power in 2008. Unfortunately, the young wolf fell out with Jacob Zuma following the ANC disciplinary proceedings against him and is calling for leadership change in the ruling party.

Malema was given 14 days to appeal the ruling, but he declared that instead of challenging the ANC in court over his expulsion he would appeal to the national disciplinary committee of appeals. If that fails he said will go to the ANC’s national executive committee and ultimately to the highest decision-making body: the ANC’s national general conference, where the party’s leadership is elected.

Furthermore, Malemahas asked the disciplinary council to allow him to keep his party membership, knowing very well if his suspension is upheld after the appeal he would lose the party membership. By losing the party membership, Malema’s political career within the ANC may be over and he will be left with no other alternative than to start his own party. However, he is also well aware that populist figures, like himself, who have left the party in the past have failed spectacularly in the face of the ANC’s political dominance.

Whatever Malema is accused of, he should be credited to have stirred a national debate on prime concerns of millions of South Africans, such as poverty and unemployment. The ANC would face a bumpy ride if they continued to ignore the plight of the underprivileged in the townships and muzzles up its critics.

Eighteen years ago, the world witnessed the end of apartheid rule and looked up to South Africa as the new beacon of hope in a continent marred by corruption, mismanagement, armed conflicts, poverty and famine.

As it stands today, the ANC can no longer rely on indestructible unity seen during its long struggle against apartheid and the subsequent establishment of the Rainbow Nation. In fact, the party has fallen prey to internal dissent and stands divided by an informal succession battle where ethnic and tribal tension – Sotho vs Zulus vs Xhosa – dominates the political stratum.

More than the internal conflict against the policies of the ANC, what is at stake here is the challenge raised by a younger generation. This is happening not only in South Africa. All around the world the youth are challenging their elders. There was Seattle, Genoa Cannes and in between Tunisia, Egypt and the Occupy [Wall Street] Movement.

Seattle marked a turning point. It showed that everywhere in the world that young men and young women have dreams and share the same ideas: put an end to the global political, financial and environmental crises that the world has been facing for the past two decades and bring social justice around the world.

In some countries this “youth” phenomenon has taken a more dramatic turn than in others. In Tunisia and in Egypt the young activists who took to the streets succeeded in bringing down the regimes in power. Some countries saw a blip on their screen of street activism, however, no demands for presidents to step down were made and no massive crowds overwhelmed the city, like in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. This youth activism may be stagnant in some countries for the time being, but it is ready to pop back up, when need be.

Young people have had enough of being pushed aside whenever they stand up against their elders, they have had enough of not being part in the decision-making process concerning their present and future wellbeing.

Unfortunately be it in South Africa, which this year is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the ANC, or elsewhere in the world, the tables were reversed and those who dared challenge their elders are today paying the price.

We could criticise Julius Malema for the manner with which he led a rebellion against his seniors within the ANC, but we cannot criticise the nascent rebellion itself.


The writer, Eva Dadrian, is an independent broadcaster and risk analyst for print and broadcast media.

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