History and the Future

The importance of young people as critical linkage between troubled past and hope filled future

The historical role of the youth as a strategic bridge in connecting troubled pasts with futures filled with hope & prosperity: Reflections for African National Congress Youth League Leaders

Former American President, Ronald Reagan, once said “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” If Ronald Reagan was correct, who will benefit or suffer most from the extinction of our democracy and consequently, which sections of the generational divide have a bigger burden to protect democracy, if indeed there are differing levels of responsibility?

This article will seek to understand the existence of material conditions that in the past have compelled young people to thrust themselves in the centre and sometimes the front of societal struggles for certain revolutionary outcomes, at times with the co-operation of their elderly counterparts but sometimes diagonally at odds with those who are older. The review is partly inspired by the determined and demonstrable role that young people have played over decades if not centuries in reshaping the course and destinies of their societies by responding to challenges faced by their societies at those particular moments in their histories.

This assessment is also inspired by the realisation that in a short while, thousands of leaders of the African National Congress Youth League from across the country will gather in a seminal and definitive elective conference. Amongst other things in this conference, I am certain these leaders of the ANC Youth League, conscious of their monumental historical role in the evolution of our society, they will critically assess the strategic role they should play in responding to some of the pressing questions that face our country today, a country whose collective leadership they are consummately enjoined to.

There is an accepted norm in African societies that young people should seek and accept the wise tutelage, guidance and education from older generations to capacitate them to comprehend, confront and surmount the major obstacles in the natural lifecycle of their development. Coupled with the wise counsel of elders, young African people are brought up under a strict dogma of obeying older generations. But even in the African strata of clear and accepted deference by the youth to the old, it has always been understood inter-generationally that being respected by the youth is not a natural inheritance that comes with old age. Africans of old age had always been immensely clear of what they needed to do cultivate and maintain respect from their younger counterparts.

So what lessons, if there are any, does history have that could help the young leaders of South Africa to comprehend with the perceived contestation of ideological positioning in the contested championing of the articulated aspirations of young South Africans by their elders ?

Here are a few stories of inspired youth leadership:

  1. Amilcar Cabral formed the “African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) in 1956 whilst he was 35 years old and PAIGC under his leadership was going to be a continental well from which there was intellectual crafting of political and military strategies, strategies that partly helped in the final decolonisation of many of the colonised regimes in Africa in that period.
  2. Fidel Castro led the Cuban revolution and in 1959 (and at the age 33) defeated the illegitimate, dictatorial and corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista (who was 58 years old).
  3. Patrice Lumumba led the revolution of the Congolese people against the excesses of their Belgian colonial oppressors, culminating in their liberation in 1960 and Patrice Lumumba being democratically elected its Prime Minister at the age of 34.
  4. President Samora Machel at the age of 36 was already the Commander in Chief of FRELIMO’s armed wing which successfully led and attained the liberation of Mozambique from the colonial Portugal, with Samora Machel eventually becoming Mozambique’s president in 1975 at the age of 42.
  5. Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko who are both internationally recognised as intellectual giants and scholarly leaders and authorities on the interplay between psychology, consciousness and the struggle for liberation. They were respectively aged 35 and 30 when they passed on.
  6. President Jacob Zuma, President Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani, were all in their 30s when they were elected into the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress in the 1970’s
  7. Meles Zenawi was also 36 years old when he eventually defeated the military junta that was led by the dictatorial Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, to ultimately become the President of Ethiopia in 1991.

The above are just some of the examples that painstakingly portray the positive and momentous role African youth have played in delivering, restoring or strengthening freedom and progress in their societies. The list is obviously, whilst not exhaustive, positively and linearly biased in its selection and depiction.

The point that needs to be highlighted is not the obviously gallant role that youthful leaders have played in some of history’s most memorable achievements, but rather to question why such responsibilities had fallen to such obviously younger generations, in stark contrasts of the cultural expectation of expected deference by younger generations to older generations especially in the African context.

Robert Pogrund writes in the biography of Robert Sobukwe titled “How can a man die better” about events leading to the funeral of Robert Sobukwe in February 1978. Contextually, one might be reminded that in 1978, the ANC, PAC and the SACP were banned, underground and exiled, Steve Biko had died the previous year and a year before Steve Biko’s death, there were the Soweto uprisings led by young school children. It could be argued that it some respects; there had been a deepening of the internal leadership vacuum in the struggle for liberation inside of South Africa. The death and burial of Robert Sobukwe then could be argued that it had the potential to present another source of despair and deepening hopelessness in the internal mass movement. But back to the events leading to the funeral, Robert Pogrund, who was a close friend of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, together with Helen Suzman were invited to be speakers at the funeral by the family of Sobukwe. But by the morning of the funeral Robert Pogrund got a message that said “The children have taken over and they won’t have Mr Pogrund and Mrs Suzman speaking.” The “children” were youth activists mostly from Port Elizabeth and Soweto. So the question is: What transpires that is so grave that even the funeral of a national icon can be hijacked away from the wishes of the family to the wishes of “children”? What conditions lead to where the leadership of elders is deliberately ignored and overruled to the point where “the children have taken over”?

Now I imagine, the leaders of the African National Congress Youth leaders, as they gather in their thousands, for their upcoming elective conference, would be seized by plethora of vexing questions. These considerations would largely be influenced by a number of pressing intra political/organisational matters. I would imagine also that, external to the organisational matters, amongst other things, the monumental triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality whose impact is disproportionately severe on the youth of South Africa, would get significant attention and proportion of their deliberations.

But I would also think, that given the fact that the ANC Youth League celebrated 70 years of existence in 2014, under the leadership of a National Task Team, would in itself be a point of serious introspection, reflection and refreshing assessment. I would, in my small appreciation, expect these leaders, who play a vital leadership role in the global real estate of our body politic, to ask themselves how their glorious league had got into such a state of organisational being, that the national leaders of the African National Congress were left with no option but to help rebuild its leadership structures from scratch.

The upcoming elective congress of the ANC YL also comes shortly after our movement, the ANC, was just visited by the “CUBAN FIVE”. I would imagine that, in the context of the integral part that international solidarity played in overall offensive against the eventual defeat of the Apartheid system, in the struggle that was led by the African National Congress, the significance of the visit by the “CUBAN FIVE” is not lost to leaders of the ANC Youth league. The broad, impactful and definitive impact of Cuban intervention and assistance in the many wars of liberation in Southern Africa should also illicit some reflection on the part of the leaders of the African National Congress Youth League. Certainly amongst other questions, they should be asking, what role should members and leaders of the ANCYL be playing in advancing total and complete emancipation for all peoples of the world who, unlike us South Africans, have not tasted the sweetness of complete and unfettered emancipation, freedom, dignity and equal opportunity.

Again, we have read that, the conference is going to be seized in part with difficult organisation and political questions, questions of political identity and purpose, of political form and political content, of political meaning and organisational relevance. In this context I thought it could be helpful to remind our leaders in the African National Congress Youth League, of a question that President Samora Machel once asked, in a speech in Zimbabwe in the 1980s : He said “ Aluta Continua” meaning the struggle continues” … then he asked “ Against what must the struggle continue? He answered by saying “the struggle must continue against tribalism, against illiteracy, against ignorance, against exploitation, against superstition, against misery, against hunger, against lack of clothing…. The struggle must continue so that one day we can all be equal.”
Now over three decades after President Samora Machel made his clarification call, that was instructing Africans what they should be fighting for and fighting against, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that the majority of young Africans all over the continent are still in their daily lives, visited by hunger, misery, illiteracy, tribalism, ignorance, let alone the burden of disease and war. As our leaders meet in their elective conference, agonising about the content around which their politics should pivot, they could do well do remember what President Samora Machel said we should struggle for and struggle against.

Our broad Congress Alliance has over the last decade, been forced to deal with a tearing attack on the unity and cohesion of the movement including the unity of our broad alliance partners. If unity had not been central and principal in the organisational and ideological development of the African National Congress over the last 103 years, I somehow doubt that the ANC would have lasted for 103 years. In my mind, the question of organisation unity, centred on unity of purpose, should also be a critical item of robust engagement and contestation by our leaders in their upcoming elective conference. The emergence of many break way parties, both to the left and to the right of the ANC should be a springboard for robust self-examination and intuitive reflection. The youth leaders should be inspired more than others to work to inherit a united and cohesive movement, as opposed to a fractious entity that could have mutated itself many times before they inherit it. However the leaders of the ANC Youth League should imbue themselves with the irrefutable and comforting fact that the ANC and the ANC Youth League both have inbuilt capacity for learning and self-refreshment and self-correction. Both the ANC and the ANCYL would have not lasted for 103 and 71 years respectively, if their politics were not centred on their noble and life-long mission of creating a better life for all South Africans.

In particular, leaders of the ANCYL, as they gather in their upcoming elective conference, reflecting on the sustained attack on our movement by political opponents, especially those who have popularly positioned themselves to the left of our ideological positioning, our leaders in the youth league would be inspired by what Khalil El-Anani said. Khalid said this in a published article entitled “Egyptian Revolution Reconsidered”. He said: “Not every outburst of collective anger and frustration is a revolution. Not every defiance and overthrow of an old regime and its legal edifice is proof of a successful revolutionary act. The sole guarantor of the success of a revolution is society itself. Herein lays the crux of the dilemma: the performer of the revolutionary act (the agent) needs a revolution so that the act and the agent can be brought into harmony, and so that the results are consistent with the beginnings.”

Our leaders in the ANC Youth League should therefore not pre-occupy their attention too much with our political opponents whose brand of politics are inspired by “outbursts of collective anger and frustration” and premised on illogical and unsustainable political economy considerations that play on the emotions of the desperate youth and the indigent of our country. Some of our opponents are self-styled revolutionaries but have no sense of the revolution they are waging.

In summary, in the above narrative we have illustrated a number of points, in order to reflect on the role young leaders have in shaping futures of their societies, in conjunction and sometimes in conflict with the elderly in society who are in the levers of power.

Firstly we denoted that the African story which is littered with countless numbers of youth leaders in Africa and the diaspora who emerged to jettison out of power, elderly leaders who were not championing the genuine aspirations of the masses of African people, or who rose to work with the elderly leaders in pursuit of the noble goals of freedom and progress. This listing of these achievements of young African leaders was to emphasise our conviction, that there isn’t anything amiss with young leader’s agitation for active influence and participation in the overall governance of national affairs. The central thesis of our narrative is that if it wasn’t for young leaders, Africa wouldn’t be where it is today.

Secondly, young leaders in general, but ANC Youth League leaders in particular should be examining closely the role they should be playing in capacitating our country and her people to significantly and urgently overcome the pressing challenges they face. In doing so, it would be unwise to want to pretend that they alone are best poised to provide appropriate and lasting solutions. The collective wisdom and experience of great elderly leaders coupled with the innovative ideas and energetic drive of the youth would be a formidable combination.

Thirdly, ANC Youth League leaders should be acutely sensitive to the enormity of the challenges that face South Africans in general, and the youth in particular, and therefore the urgency required to respond appropriately and in a determined manner. Each and every day left without attending to these pressing issues, allows wider and wider breathing space for our political opponents to opportunistically capture the imagination of our supporters.

Fourthly, the ANC Youth League, should be the bedrock around which the lifetime unity of our broad Congress movement is built and ANC YL leaders should resist the temptation to be swayed into divisive factional pondering activities that serve narrow personal interests as opposed to long term organisational interests.

Lastly the ANC Youth League leaders, must reorient themselves away from the imminently attractive, populist and short termism of being “king makers” but rather aspire to the long, honourable and hard slog of “building castles”. They must do so being mindful of the fact that democracies “must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same”

In conclusion, may the upcoming national conference of the ANC Youth League and the coming months thereafter be the pivot from which the denunciation of the cancerous and destructive politics of “Phuma Singene” begin and ends where the politics of our glorious movement are reoriented of to their age-old ethos that said “Umfutho kubantu”.

Cde Lithalethu Gqoboka Is a member of the ANC Fourways Branch

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