A Strategic Perspective Towards the ANCYL National Congress

This year, after a two-year interregnum, the ANCYL shall hold its elective National Congress.

This shall be a culmination of long political and organisational work that has been done among the youth throughout the country since the decision of the ANC NEC in 2013 to dissolve the ANCYL NEC.

Following this unprecedented decision, the ANC established a National Task Team (NTT), which commenced forthwith with the re-establishment of the structures of the League.

As at this moment, all the ANCYL provincial structures have been re-established and the organisation is, accordingly, ready to hold its elective congress.

However, we should hasten to highlight that what matters about this Congress is not merely that it shall be held to elect new leaders for the organisation. We live in an era wherein personalities and consequently individuals are elevated above organisations or even the collectives with which they lead. This is typical of the liberal agenda which emphasises individualism over and above collective interests and perspectives.

It is easy today to manufacture cults that are devoid of content but are just “excellent” leaders of caucus and factions. Songs are sung about them and they inspire great enthusiasm and evoke great passions among their followers, not because they have proven track record in the struggle, have irrefutable credentials of tremendous heroism or because we extol any of their struggle feats or virtues. Their only claim to fame is that they happen to be self-imposed leaders of factions devoid of any big idea as to what they stand for and what must change once they are elected, as they wish.

Of greater relevance about this Congress is that it shall provide the most requisite platform for the ANCYL branch delegates robustly to debate not only the future of their organisation, its political outlook and repositioning, but they shall above everything else deliberate on the future of our country, our movement and the role and place of the youth in the pursuit of that future.

It stands to reason that the ANCYL National Congress must not be allowed to digress towards a petty focus on leadership slates, but it must focus singularly on its content. The people who can ensure this are the delegates of the ANCYL, who attend the Congress not as mere pawns of “slate politics” but as the masters of the destiny of the ANCYL, the guarantors of our future.

As they gather, uppermost in the minds of the delegates must be that the organisation at whose instance and in whose name and honour they will be assembling has, during the seven decades of its existence,

  • become synonymous with the youth – there has never been a day or decade when they had to do one without the other,
  • ensured that since its formation, there never was a decade during which the youth never made a remarkable contribution into the struggle and played a catalysing role in order, indeed, to take it to newer heights,
  • been among the front rank combatants in the struggle, and in the centre of the struggles of the youth, providing them with principled and militant leadership, and drawing them into the struggle under the banner of the ANC,
  • led the youth of South Africa into the struggle for national freedom as an integral component part of that struggle, in the conviction and knowledge that youth interests were inseparable from those of the people as a whole,
  • imbued the youth with a militant political outlook as well as (with) a militant and yet disciplined activities, and
  • taught the youth through united, militant and disciplined action to shed their fear for the tyrannical regime and its repressive machinery and wage a concerted and relentless struggle until total victory was won.

From its inception, the ANCYL was thrust into the very heart of a difficult struggle. From its founding, the ANCYL was preoccupied with three inter-related issues:

  • First, the struggle of the African people as led by the African National Congress,
  • Secondly, the ideological and organisational rebuilding and renewal, as well as unity, of the ANC, its injection with radical African Nationalism, imparting it with a “national character” and its transformation into a militant fighting organ of the African people ready to face the tyrannical regime and conquer it; and
  • Thirdly, the role of the youth in the struggle under the banner of a united and radical ANC.

From its very inception, the founders of the ANCYL believed in the ANC as a vehicle for the unity of the African people in their struggle for freedom. They believed that divisions and factionalism within the national movement had to be viciously defeated as they would detract from its historical mission.

Not denying weaknesses within the ANC, particularly at the time the ANCYL was formed, they believed that these could not be used as an excuse to divide the African people by dividing the Congress. In their very firm opinion, the task of uniting the oppressed and leading them to national freedom could not be accomplished through a divided ANC and fractious struggle.

Accordingly, throughout its long history, the ANCYL has regarded it as one of its foremost duties jealously and steadfastly to safeguard and advance the “unity of purpose” and “unity in action” of the ANC.

ANCYL founders believed the youth had a decisive and catalysing role to play in the struggle, given their militant outlook and willingness to sacrifice in the name of freedom and the people, and given their energy, death-defying courage and eagerness to sweat for mass mobilisation, organisation and education.

They believed that the struggles and efforts of the youth were integral, rather than independent, parallel or opposed, to those of the masses of the people as a whole. Their own struggles had their origins in the struggles of the masses of our people which dated back to the first resistance wars to stave off colonial incursion.

They could only fulfil this role, both in the broader struggle as well as within the ANC, through an organisation of their own where they would develop organisational and leadership capabilities, as well as experience, in a manner relevant to their own generation. Their dynamising role is greatly facilitated by their organisation and mobilisation around issues that affect them as youth.

It is through such organisations that the revolutionary forces are able to impart skills and experience in a manner fitting the peculiar station of the youth, and to galvanise them into a broad movement attracting all potential participants.

At the same time, they learned from the onset, when they immediately clashed with Dr. Xuma, both in 1944 as well as in 1948/9, that there would be healthy tensions between the young and the old, and organisationally between the ANC and ANCYL from time to time on matters of perspective or even strategies and tactics. These tensions are healthy and ensure progress.

However, at all times, the youth and their organ, the ANCYL, are subject to the overall discipline and political directives of the ANC in whose formulation they participate. This is why youth are represented in all the decision-making organs as a youth political organ and body of opinion.

This then emphasises the pivotal significance of the ANCYL?s “organisational autonomy”, which is narrowly defined in terms of the right to administer their own financial transactions, hold their own national congress, elect their own leadership and adopt their own programme of action under, however, the broad political line and discipline of the mother-body.

This means that the autonomy of the ANCYL, which is often referred to as “organisational” does have bounds; it does not extend to political autonomy or independence.

Yet, whilst it maintains its primary responsibility to provide its Youth League with the overall political directive, the ANC acknowledges the right of the youth to engage in youthful political debates and, through their actions and youthful innovation, to dynamise the struggle.

The ANC does not seek to curtail the youth in their quest for new and more militant ideas, but expects them to exercise this right guided by the responsibility both to listen to the wise counsel of the ANC as well to adhere to its revolutionary discipline.

The ANCYL must act as a direct bridge between the youth and the ANC; to bring the youth into the ANC and the ANC to the youth.

It has twin tasks to rally the youth into politics and the struggle under the banner of the ANC and, at the same time, to champion their political and socio-economic interests.

From the outset, the ANCYL was radical, disciplined, and over time developed a correct understanding of its historical role in relation to the struggle, the ANC and the youth themselves.

Above all else, through their participation in the struggle, suffering feats and foibles, the youth learned the dialectical truth that all our reality is relative and this world is made of plastic material. Everything we know shall come to pass, it is bound to change, either because we make the change or we are the recipients of the change.

From its inception, it threw itself headlong into the struggle for freedom, not merely of the South African people but of the African people continent-wide. From the onset, the ANCYL cast its eyes on the continent and pledged its unyielding support for the struggles of all the oppressed peoples of Africa.

Upon its formation, the ANCYL dedicated most of its time trying to conceptualise the historic mission of their generation as well as the historic tasks of the ANCYL arising therefrom.

At this juncture, most vital was the formulation of the creed of African Nationalism and its injection into the ANC through robust and fearless engagement, as the youth began making their mark on it.

Its militant formulation of African Nationalism was to be refined after the death of its founding President, Anton Lembede.

This gave the ANC its purpose and mission, and began to define the ANC not merely as an organisation either seeking accommodation within the colonial political establishment or an organisation against white minority rule, but, above everything else, as an organisation FOR African national-freedom and self-determination.

Knowing the difficult journey ahead, they defined for their generation the mission – “Freedom in our Lifetime”. They not only vowed, but proceeded, to pursue this vision vigorously and with unyielding zeal, both until they handed over the baton to the next generations and until victory over racial bigotry was achieved. This was to be the mission of every generation of youth until freedom was achieved.

Throughout its different phases, from its very inception, the ANCYL has led the youth to realise their historic mission as the foot-soldiers of the revolution. Not a single decade has passed since the forties that the youth did not participate and make a watershed contribution to the struggle of the oppressed.

Often, history called upon the youth to commit heroic feats of struggle, indeed, to carry on their shoulders the difficult burdens of the struggle in order to propel it forward.

At each moment when history asked of them, the youth, led by the ANCYL, has never been found wanting or acted cowardly.

The period of the forties for the masses was characterised by the radicalisation of the workers, especially in the mines, the black communities in both urban and rural areas, as well as that of the youth in universities.

From 1947, after the death Lembede, the ANCYL began outlining its own political and socio-economic perspective and programme, culminating in the adoption of the “Basic Policy Document” in 1948, which advanced the initial ideas of “African nationalism” and laid the basis for the militant programme of action subsequently adopted by the ANC’s Annual Conference in 1949 which emphasised civil disobedience against and mass defiance of apartheid laws.

Following the adoption of this POA, the ANCYL lobbied ANC branches for some of its leaders to be elected into key ANC positions, resulting in it spreading its sphere of influence within the ANC, to ensure they can take direct custody of the implementation of the POA. Accordingly, when the defiance campaign was launched in 1952, ANCYL members were found at the forefront of the campaign as volunteers, leading to the commencement of the mobilisation for the Freedom Charter.

Towards the end of the fifties, ANCYL members began agitating for the armed struggle, an argument they were eventually to win as the apartheid-colonial regime was getting more and more violent. The masses needed to begin responding to the growing violence of the regime by returning fire-with-fire.

As the armed struggled became a dominant pillar of the struggle post the Sharpeville massacre, the ANCYL made it its responsibility to recruit the youth to receive military training and become armed combatants. At this moment, the ANCYL decided to cease its organisational activities in South Africa, join the ANC in exile and focus its activities on recruiting youth for military training in exile.

In exile, and because there were many youthful combatants in the camps, it was decided to re-establish the ANCYL as the ANC Youth Section, and focus on the arts and culture, political education and ideological training of the youth as well as to participate, on behalf of the ANC youth, in international youth forums such as the World Federation of Democratic Youth, the World Festival of Youth and Students, and others.

Between 1960 and later in the decade, there was a gaping vacuum in the political involvement and organisation of the youth in South Africa. However, students’ organisations formed in the late sixties, despite being sectoral in character, took it upon themselves to organise the youth at large.

After the 1973 Durban workers strikes, the youth were once again rallied into the struggle, leading to the June 16th Uprising which, for the first time since the December 16th 1960 MK actions around the country, directly challenged the might of the apartheid regime.

After 1976, the terrain of struggle and particularly youth involvement was to change drastically, with the formation of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), representing high school students, and the Azanian Students Organisation (AZASO), representing university students, coming into the picture in 1979. Both organisations subsequently adopted the Freedom Charter and resolutions to work towards the formation of a national youth organisation, which eventually happened in 1987 when the South African Youth Congress (SAYCO) was formed.

Like that of the ANCYL in 1944, the formation of SAYCO changed the course of South African history and gave impetus to the struggle, injecting the much needed dynamism and militancy in township and rural struggles in ways only the youth could and can do. This led to the ANC relying on the youth as the cutting edge and the shock-troopers of the struggle when the moment came to make South Africa ungovernable and render its institutions of power unworkable. What the youth lacked in experience, they made up for in death-defying valour.

So valiant were they in battle that the late ANC President, OR Tambo, eventually referred to them as the Young Lions of the struggle. So decisive and courageous were youthful political and organisational interventions after the formation of SAYCO that they unwittingly invited themselves the wrath of the apartheid regime’s repressive machinery. Their resilience prevailed, albeit at a huge cost to many of them, in terms of their lives and socio-economic conditions. Their valour did not go unnoticed among the masses and they occupied pride of place in the hearts of their people.

At the attainment of freedom in 1994, a new era dawned for the ANCYL. During the negotiations, the organisation had grappled with the challenge of a changing political scenario. During this period, as well as maintaining the tempo of the negotiations process, the movement had decided to engage in sustained and at times rolling mass action in order to keep the masses mobilised and involved in the process, in order to tilt the balance of forces in favour of the progressive forces.

The ANCYL was vital in mass and youth mobilisation during this period. During a really difficult time, it maintained both a high level of militancy as well as revolutionary discipline.

After the 1994 elections, the ANCYL faced a serious challenge of having to adjust to the new conditions and adapt, or face death. For 50 years, it had existed as an apartheid fighting machine, with its political programme and organisational structure oriented towards fighting apartheid-colonialism. 1994 occasioned the need to set a new vision, review the organisational machinery and adopt new strategies.

However, what compounded the ANCYL’s political and organisational renewal during this period were three main subjective and inter-related things,

  • The generation of leadership that had taken the youth struggles to this moment, mainly drawn both from the ANC Youth Section as well as SAYCO, had just relinquished their leadership responsibilities in 1993 at the 18th National Congress, which created a bit of a void as some of them had become household names for a period spanning almost a decade;
  • A new group of leaders, although largely drawn from the same generation as above, had come in during a complex and confusing period, and had not had sufficient time to conceptualise the new period and thus be able theoretically to locate the mission and role of the youth and thus the tasks of the organisation during this new phase; and
  • There was a mass and unplanned exodus of this seasoned youth leadership to national and provincial legislatures in 1994, which denuded the ANCYL of seasoned national and provincial leadership and left a huge void, which effectively weakened the organisation.

The first serious seeds of renewal were planted at the 1996 19th National Congress, when a new leadership was elected singularly to focus on rebuilding the organisation and when the Congress resolved to begin grappling with the question of the role of youth post-1994.

It was resolved to explore the strategy of “cooperation and confrontation” with the new ANC-led government.

Of course, there would be no Chinese wall between these two as they could through careful and tactical manoeuvres complement and reinforce one another.

The period between 1996 and 2000 was characterised largely by the painstaking work of rebuilding organisational structures. During this time, critical debates continued to rage as to the role of the organisation and youth in general post-apartheid.

An organisation that was militant from its inception, how could it articulate its militancy in a period when the ANC itself was the governing party, when a crucial element of “freedom in our lifetime”, that which pertained to the transfer of power from the white minority regime to the non-racial democratic majority, had been attained!

However, militancy was never an approach directed against the ANC leadership or even any government – the ANCYL were not anarchists and aimless rebels against any form of government or authority – but it was directed at the system of apartheid-colonialism.

This perspective had to maintained at all times as it could easily result in describing even the popular democratic government as itself indistinguishable from the abhorrent system of oppression and hence an enemy.

Similarly, supporting the new popular government and State could not in itself mean a rejection of militancy against the system of apartheid-colonialism, which would continue casting its long shadow on the new dispensation being created.

Around 2000, the organisation decided to start embarking on youth mass action around youth economic participation and the HIV and AIDS awareness campaigns.

Prior to this, the organisation had been busy with campaigns around peace, nation-building, youth development, racism and others. It was these campaigns that re-took the ANCYL to the youth and ensured that by the time of the 22nd National Congress its membership stood at 507 889, which was at the time higher than even the ANC’s.

After the 2001 National Congress, the ANCYL NEC decided that both political and organisational focus had to be shifted towards more mass mobilisation around the issues of youth unemployment, guided by the NEC document, “Getting Young People Working: an employment strategy of the ANCYL”.

The Youth Economic Participation Programme was adopted, anchored around creating employment for the youth, raising their skills levels and promoting youth entrepreneurship in both the public and private sectors.

At the same time as the organisation was engaging in mass mobilisation, it began developing policy capacity. It was necessary that it does not just make noise about its proposals, but it would have to formulate coherent policies and programmes to back their proposals up.

One of the issues that became a huge concern at this moment was the toxic correlation between youth unemployment among ANCYL members and their manipulation by some ANC leaders at various tiers who exploited them as pawns in pursuit of their political ambitions. This had a massive impact on the quality of ANCYL members and bred hooligan behaviour in structures and meetings. The process of organisational renewal would thus begin to be marred by the abuse of resources by those who commanded them over those that did not.

Nonetheless, this process of mass mobilisation around socio-economic issues was successful in that it achieved the political re-orientation and re-ideologisation of the youth and ANCYL as an organisation, its organisational renewal as well as its grounding both within the ANC as well as in society as a whole.

The ANCYL once more became a force to be reckoned with, a vital commentator on all important issues pertaining to the youth and the nation.

It succeeded to coin socio-economic issues within a broader political framework and thus extended its sphere its engagement and influence.

However, strong as it became towards 2004, this was about to change.

Its 2004 22nd National Congress took place amidst a brewing leadership succession tussle in the ANC which the ANCYL had correctly anticipated would be vicious, costly and divisive not only within the ANC, but within the ANCYL itself and the broader national liberation movement.

It became a harbinger for impending ANC leadership changes. For over four decades, the ANC had enjoyed peaceful succession, but this was about to change in 2007.

The leadership rift at the highest level in the ANC had become irreparable and a bitter succession battle could not be avoided. In this succession battle, the ANCYL would not sit on the fence; it would be called upon to take sides and play a critical role.

It would take a strong organisation to engage in this decisive battle and yet not be consumed by it, and a strong leadership to guide the organisation through it all.

Whereas after the 2004 National Congress, the attention remained on implementing Congress resolutions, building on the programmes of the previous years, however, the 2005 “release” of the then Deputy President from his government role precipitated a complete change of focus in the ANCYL.

From then on, the focus became the ANC and its leadership succession questions, as the ANCYL crowned itself, with the connivance of the media, as the ANC’s “king-makers”.

This was unfortunate as it was ahistorical, a distortion of the ANCYL’s rich history which deviated it from its twin tasks.

This conception confined its role to ANC leadership elections and bred arrogance and ill-discipline that began to characterise the organisation in later years. The notion of “king-makers” never existed in the minds of the founders of the ANCYL and was never, throughout the ANCYL’s history, a part of the organisation’s culture.

Actually, it took 5 years since the ANCYL’s launch eventually to propagate for leadership changes in the ANC, and even then this was informed by particular objective reasons.

The period leading to and following the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane Conference was sad as it was tragic for the ANC as a whole, and the ANCYL was affected as the divisions in the ANC had permeated all its structures. A gap was created for factionalists and opportunists to exploit and launch a vicious offensive on the ANC’s rich democratic culture.

After 2007, the ANCYL would begin to be consumed by the divisions it had initially actively participated in trying to diffuse. The recognition of the outcome of its 2008 flawed electoral process by the ANC NEC was a huge and uncalculated mistake the consequences of which were to be almost fatal for the ANCYL.

The ANCYL started becoming a voice and very embodiment of gross ill-discipline, vulgarism, anarchy and factionalism. Both in terms of its political posturing as well as its organisational functioning, the ANCYL both became a problem and was in deep trouble, under the firm clutches of political hooligans, if not downright agents.

It developed an increasingly antagonistic relationship with its mother-body, defining itself outside of the political framework of the ANC, embracing alien organisational practices that flouted long-established internal democratic practices of the movement.

This created the conditions for the emergence of a cult tendency in the form of its axed President, who fitted precisely within what was described by the late Soviet leader, Nikita Kruschev at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 that:

“After Stalin’s death the Central Committee of the party began to implement a policy of explaining concisely and consistently that it is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behaviour.

What created conducive conditions for this tendency was the declining political and ideological capacity of many of the ANCYL structures and activists. They could not stand up to this cult tendency because they themselves were easy fodder for his charismatic and rhetorical prowess, who pounced on the raw passions of the youth arising out of their socio-economic marginalisation in order to drive them towards his own personal agenda. His cult, as all cults do, grew to a point where he confused himself for the organisation and mistook his personal agenda for that of the ANCYL itself and the youth as a whole.

Like Stalin, as described by Kruschev, he,

  • “accumulated in his hands immeasurable power” which he was not always able to use with “the required care”,
  • “absolutely did not tolerate collegiality in leadership and in work”, and exercised ‘brutal violence’, “not only towards everything which opposed him but also towards that which seemed to his capricious and despotic character contrary to his concepts”, and
  • “acted not through persuasion, explanation, and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed this concept or tried to prove his viewpoint, and the correctness of his position, was domed to removal from the leading collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation.”

This period became so toxic and unfortunate toward the ANC’s 2012 53rd National Conference that even debates introduced such as “nationalisation”, which could have seemed interesting and legitimate to genuine and unsuspecting ANCYL and ANC members, had the covert purpose of achieving the opportunistic ambitions of the cult.

The ANC 53rd National Conference was to set in motion the processes to put paid to this malaise which had so permeated the ANCYL structures that it would take a painstaking effort to exorcise it and free its members and the youth in general from its effects.

Even those youth that opposed his anarchy still believed that his was a genuine “militancy” and that his ideas were worth pursuing.

The 53rd Conference instructed the incoming NEC to “urgently intervene to address the situation of the ANC Youth League” and to take “all the necessary measures to ensure that the League plays its proper role and acts within the policy and Constitution of the ANC.” After much agonising, the ANC NEC resolved to dissolve the ANCYL NEC.

This created a gaping political vacuum in youth politics that has been particularly painful for the youth in general, who look up to the ANCYL for political leadership, as well as for the ANC itself that has witnessed the political and organisational decay of the once-mighty, influential and coherent ANCYL and its standing among the youth.

Having considered the above historical account, the question arising, for the next edition, is, what then should be the strategic perspective of the ANCYL for the future and what tasks and programmes arise therefrom!


Comrade Malusi Gigaba is a member of the ANC NEC and former President ofc the ANC Youth League

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