The African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) marked its 72nd anniversary on September 10 amid increased anxiety about the future of the ANC because of its weak performance in the local government elections. This symbolically communicates a systematic erosion of the ANC’s public standing, and posits the need for a rigorous rethink of its future by all its members.
Historically, despite the attacks on its legitimacy, the ANCYL has shouldered the task of rebooting the ANC during such downturns. The ANC has experienced three similar times of decline and near-disintegration in its life.
I contend that the current period objectively qualifies as the fourth time that the movement has been at a crossroads regarding the effectiveness of its political strategy and organizational orientation.
Past evidence, however, shows that these conditions of decline were reversed only because a rigorous generation of thinkers would emerge within the party’s ranks, asserting a radical rethink of the ANC in its organizational systems and strategic political orientation.
Incidentally, almost all of this forces of renewal that successfully thrust the ANC out of its moments of disorientation, were organized under the banner of the ANCYL, or were younger Umkhonto we Sizwe militants during the underground period of the struggle.
It is in line with our past experiences that a conversation arises in the youth league and the ANC about the substance of the crisis we are experiencing. This will depend on whether a sizeable corps of intellectually and politically creative members with the capacity to nudge the party towards a nuanced conversation about our institutional crisis can emerge.
This would require a brutal critique of our ideological and theoretical weaknesses in understanding South Africa’s changing social class structure and the related shifts in public political imagination.
This is evidenced in part by the ANC’s misunderstanding of the black middle class, its existential anxieties, and the political sensibilities that motivate its behavior and eventual voting choices.
We seem to be excusing our misunderstanding of the changing social class structure by condemning the emergent social strata as ungrateful beneficiaries of the democratic transition. We do this without accounting for the systemic fault lines that produce highly indebted black middle classes who have no sustainable capital assets to support their nascent social position.
Twenty-two years into democratic governance, it appears that our strategic perspective on economic transformation is unable to boost the lower and middle social classes.
We have to rethink questions about the balance of forces as well as the composition of the motivating forces for radical change, with respect to the constitution of economic and political power locally and globally. The post 2008 global setting provides a need for us to revisit entirely our formulations of strategy and tactics.
We also have under-theorized the broad practical substance of non-sexism. Whereas there are positive narratives about gender equality and radical attacks on the institutional power of patriarchy in some social spaces, we have in the past decade been caught wanting on the other side, by upholding backward attitudes about women and the LGBT community.
As a result, we are no longer leading society in reimagining and articulating the identity of post-apartheid South Africa, despite our religious claims. This has led to a discord between what we think we have to do in government and what different social classes expect of us.
Our arrogantly disastrous handling of corruption complaints and perceptions has succeeded only in hollowing out our moral credibility, which, as it is, has been under pressure from our inability to articulate a forward-looking radical perspective that appeals to newly eligible voters.
It is troubling, however, that the need to reimagine our movement arises within a muddied internal framework of analysis that views all political development from the pre-emptive position of factional biases.
For instance, the youth league recently began a series of open letters in which it presented as critical reflections on cabinet ministers and public policy matters of which they are custodians. This is apposite insofar as it re-orientates the movement towards matters that are essential to public dialogue.
These open letters, in my view, have revived one of the forgotten yet critical traditions of the ANC; that of rigorous public exchanges on matters of policy strategy as a systematic means of capturing the public imagination.
Whether the youth league succeeds or fails to be among the forces that become the midwife to a renewed ANC will depend on the capacity of the leadership to withstand ridicule and to engender honest and robust reflections about the state of the party while drawing on as many opinions as possible from thinkers in the ANC and the youth league, regardless of their positions because rebooting the ANC requires brutal critique.
ZUKO GODLIMPI IS A MEMBER OF THE ANC YOUTH LEAGUE