The young lions who miaow

William M Gumede chronicles the decline in youth organisations that once operated as dedicated ANC auxiliaries.

The dismal state of the ANC Youth League, the South African Students Congress (Sasco) and the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) — which traditionally nurtured a new generation of ANC leaders — greatly distresses the present leaders of the ANC-led tripartite alliance.

The SA Communist Party, one of the three tripartite allies, is so concerned about the wayward ANC Youth League that it resolved at its July national congress to form a Young Communist League by September next year. It obviously feels it can no longer rely on the Youth League to invigorate it with a new generation of leaders.

North West premier Popo Molefe has slammed the local Youth League leaders in Mafeking for “having few functioning branches, and no clear programme or direction”. Molefe says the league only “functions before conferences” and is being “used by” ambitious ANC upper echelon members for their own ends.

The ANC Youth League leader Malusi Gigaba has certainly been positioning himself to take over from Peter Mokaba, the former Youth League leader who served as Mbeki’s lightning rod and shield. In the past few months Gigaba has weighed in against ANC national chairman Mosiuoa Lekota for saying all ANC leadership positions should be contested at the party’s December conference.

He has simultaneously taken a stand against the ANC’s left after a mild critique of the ANC-in-government by SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin.

The Youth League leader has increasingly identified himself as a man who is prepared to defend Mbeki’s and the government’s controversial HIV/Aids policies.

It is the same role that Mokaba, who died in June, played for Mbeki. Mokaba emerged as ANC kingpin after the Youth League threw its weight behind Mbeki’s candidacy for ANC deputy president against that of Cyril Ramaphosa at the party’s 1994 conference in Bloemfontein.

Mokaba kept the ANC left, organised by Cosatu and the SACP, in check, co-authoring and circulating a set of “briefing notes” last year lambasting socialists in the tripartite alliance. Just before his death, Mokaba also fought a last-ditch battle on Mbeki’s behalf to secure political support for a dissident view on HIV/Aids.

The Youth League’s vituperative attack on Cronin could be a harbinger of how Mbeki intends to deal with the increasing public criticism from the left, given that the president’s irritation with unions, civic organisations and the communists is growing.

The Youth League itself has changed dramatically since the fiery 80s. Very few use the term “comrade” these days. Gigaba is known as the “president”. Gigaba and his political lieutenants wear designer clothes, are never without cellphones and drive expensive cars.

If not trying to be a power broker in the ANC, the Youth League is focusing on organising the Miss South Africa beauty pageant. Its latest campaign — calling for a boycott of the Cricket World Cup in SA next year if the cricket authorities do not reintroduce quotas — reeks of opportunism. But Youth League spokesman, Khulekani Ntshangase insists: “The ANC Youth League has the right to pronounce itself on issues, even if some of the pronouncements might not always be popular”.

However the machinations of the Youth League create an aura of activity to cover an organisation in crisis.

At the league’s Bloemfontein conference two years ago, Gigaba was elected for a third successive term last year in a bitter race that split the organisation down the middle. A group of former Sasco leaders, in a bid to rescue the league from terminal decline, stood in the election as a coalition, led by trade unionists David Makhura and the former Youth Commission chair Mahlengi Bhengu, hoping to oust Gigaba.

Makhura and his group were all former Sasco leaders. They blamed Gigaba for presiding over the Youth League’s decline in popularity and influence. But Gigaba narrowly won, after successfully painting the Makhura group as anti-Mbeki and “ultra-leftists”. The Makhura group still accuses Gigaba of dirty tricks, including vote-manipulation.

Despite his re-election, Gigaba was severely reprimanded by the congress for flouting the Youth League’s constitution by taking up a seat in parliament. He was forced by rank-and-file members to relinquish his seat and focus on reviving the organisation.

Ntshangase believes the Youth League is slowly recapturing its former glory. “The fact that the league can mobilise huge crowds for its campaigns shows that it is regaining its popularity,” he states.

The relationship between the Youth League and Sasco is frosty. While the League is firmly in Mbeki’s ambit on the right-wing of the ANC alliance, Sasco has been drawn into the Cosatu-left wing of the ANC alliance. Cosatu has been vigorously lobbying Sasco, drawing itinto their anti-privatisation campaigns. Sasco has also been in bitter battles with the Youth League on the university campuses.

Sasco has opposed moves by the League to open offices on campuses. The Makura-led coalition’s attempt to wrest control of the league from Gigaba can be interpreted as an attempt to shift the League to the left.

But Sasco itself is in a crisis. It is dominant on two campuses only — the University of the Western Cape and the University of the North (Turfloop).

Earlier this year Sasco was in the spotlight when the Sasco-dominated SRC at Turfloop demanded R400 000 to buy free beer and wine for a student party. When did not get it, university students went on the rampage, causing thousands of rands of damage.

Sasco general secretary Mgoato Phadine insists Sasco’s influence has not waned. He is adamant that the organisation still dominates the national student representative bodies for universities and technikons.

“But we have to change the way we organise, because the interests of students have changed. It’s now very difficult to get students to join political organisations. We must modernise, if we are going to attract them,” he says.

Out in the cold is Cosas, which represents, or seeks to represent, school pupils. Its membership is dwindling, and many of its branches are dysfunctional. Many former Cosas leaders say the organisation now lacks direction, leadership and purpose.

ANC Women’s League president Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is the only leader of national stature that still embraces Cosas. She is its honorary president.

The organisation purports to fight for a better education for its members. But protest marches called by Cosas have often turned violent, marked by looting of shops, theft and injury to street vendors, vehicles and passers-by. Cosas is banned from organising in Gauteng schools following a violent march through the streets of Johannesburg to demand the scrapping of subsidies to private schools.

Cosas is the despair of the ANC leadership. Education Minister Kader Asmal questions the need for a political organisation in schools at a time when student representative councils represent pupils. “We must get politics out of schools,” Asmal contends.

Asmal told a summit of educationists in Soweto two years ago that today’s students were not building on the proud tradition laid down by the students of the 70s and 80s. He argued then that contemporary students were no longer the reflective, engaging, analytical and reading students of South African Student Movement (SASM) and South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) of yesteryear. But Cosas resolved at its last congress, held two years ago, to remain a political student organisation.

Cosas general secretary Emmanuel Mdawu argues Cosas has a crucial role to play in rallying pupils behind the ANC’s transformation project. He also argues Cosas must make a contribution towards transforming SA’s education system and in uniting all students across racial lines. Beyond that, he says, Cosas seeks to fight sexism, ensure there is discipline in schools, and to counter the resurgence of violence in schools.

Cosas has been unable to draw in Coloured, Indian or white members. Mdawu admits that the organisation has unsuccessfully tried to broaden its base since 1995. “It’s been difficult because the issues of a township student is different than that of someone living in Bryanston,” he explains.

It has been unable to restore discipline among its members, as the increasing violence associated with their campaigns testifies. Mdawu says the violent Cosas march through Johannesburg was a mistake and that it had been difficult shaking off the negative image of the organisation.

It has been singularly unable to restore a culture of respect for teachers in some township schools. The only real attempt at being relevant was in 1997 when Cosas launched a task team aimed at improving exam results in Gauteng by at least 40 per cent.

Called Operation Fundani, it hoped to promote the formation of study groups and assist in the organisation of extra lessons in schools across Gauteng.

“Look,” says Mdawu, “its not only the membership of Cosas that has been dwindling”. He clearly takes solace that the Youth League and Sasco have also lost members.

Mdawu says the organisation doesn’t know how many paid-up members it has. It “lacks capacity,” he explains. But he contends Cosas strength must be measured by how many pupils it can “mobilise” for campaigns. Lately, Cosatu has been trying to lure Cosas into its sphere of influence and that of the ANC left generally. Perhaps that will bring some discipline and focus to Cosas.