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Youth Leagues: From Marx to Mammon

By William Gumede in Johannesburg
Posted on Monday, 2 August 2010 13:55

Young politicians are battling it out for the future of South Africa

and Zimbabwe, shaping national politics in the process. The

consequences will affect all the countries in Southern Africa.

Africa’s youth are on the march in politics and in business. In the most youthful continent – 40% of Africans are under 15 years old – the younger generation are jostling for power and profits, while wrong-footing the political establishment. The African tradition of respect for the elders is under pressure as a younger generation impatient for political change and better living standards questions the status quo. Youth movements are strongest in Southern Africa, where they played a key role in the liberation struggles, but are now battling over policies and money as much as their older counterparts.

Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the youth wing of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), may be the best known of this new crop of young politicians, but there are thousands of equally ambitious activists – some imitators and some sworn opponents – across the region. To his left-wing opponents in the trade unions and the South African Communist Party (SACP), Malema’s brand of entrepreneurial nationalism is a variant of the crony capitalism that derailed so many economies elsewhere in Africa.

Undaunted, Malema says his ambitions are a popular cause: “We are the elite that has been deliberately produced by the ANC as part of its policy to close the gap between blacks and whites in this country. It was the ANC that made it possible that, as part of that elite, some of us are now able to live in the suburbs,” Malema told the Johannesburg daily, The Sowetan in 2008. Malema owns a mansion in the upmarket suburb of Sandton and a fleet of luxury cars. He conflates the spoils of capitalism – designer clothes, cars and mansions – that he and his friends so conspicuously enjoy with a clarion call for redistribution to the poor and sanctions against foreign-owned enterprises.

The centre cannot hold?

Malema’s opponents are mobilising on several fronts. In April, the former chairman of the ANC Youth League in Limpopo Province, Lehlogonolo Masoga, organised a powerful lobby against Malema and his ally, Frans Moswane, at the province’s party congress. Malema and Moswane won the day after they called in the police, who fired rubber bullets at the dissidents. The Youth League later expelled Masoga for “violating its code of conduct”.

But this may be a short-term victory: Malema’s action stirred up more opposition to his leadership in provinces where he is unpopular, such as the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Free State. Emboldened by this development, the ANCYL deputy president, Andile Lungisa, is being encouraged to run against Malema at the league’s congress next year. This is when Youth League politics gets to the centre of national politics.

Lungisa will get support from leftist groupings in the country, from both the SACP and the Young Communist League, but Malema will be able to draw backing and perhaps financing from right-wing nationalists and the “tenderpreneurs” that have thrived by using political connections to win contracts.

The battle between Lungisa and Malema for control of the Youth League is part of the bigger battle for the control of the ANC national executive and indeed the government. The secretary-general of the Young Communist League, Buti Manamela, backs Lungisa strongly and supports SACP chairman Gwede Mantashe, who wants another term as secretary-general of the ANC. Malema and his allies are determined to oust Mantashe and replace him with the deputy minister of police, Fikile Mbalula. Such a move would boost the nationalist grip on the ruling party.

This year, sentiment has swung against Malema and his allies, partly because his conspicuous consumption prompts irritation rather than admiration. His ill-judged support of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe also infuriated South Africa’s trade unionists and undermined President Jacob Zuma’s attempts to mediate between Zimbabwe’s two main parties.

Some predict that Malema will be felled by an anti-corruption probe. The South African Revenue Service is investigating R140m ($18.5m) in contracts awarded to SGL Engineering, a company linked to him, by the Limpopo government between 2007 and 2009. Now investigations are expanding to another company linked to Malema – Blue Nightingale Trading 61 – which received another R200m in contracts from the Limpopo government. These investigations have infuriated Malema because they suggest collusion with officials and the misuse, or worse, of public funds.

Money and power

The phenomenon of business-savvy young politicians hell-bent on personal enrichment is not unique to South Africa. The former secretary of the South-West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) Youth League in Namibia, Paulus Kapia, was suspended for using the league’s name to win N$30m ($3.8m) in investments from the Social Security Commission and N$7m from Kalahari Holdings, a SWAPO-aligned conglomerate.

Young populist politicians vying for contracts make a threatening spectacle for many politicians of the independence generation. Yet today’s youth politics grew out of liberation politics, its failures and successes. Many of those movements tried to close down debate and crush dissent, sometimes using the youth as a means to do so. Establishment politicians seem reluctant, even afraid, to disavow the young populists.

Last year, Zuma declared that Malema was ‘presidential’ material, perhaps in recognition for the support he mobilised for Zuma’s presidential campaign. This year, relations have cooled after the ANC national executive disciplined Malema after his endorsement of President Mugabe’s land policies and his enthusiastic renditions of the Pan-Africanist Congress chant: “Kill the Boer”.

Today’s populist and business-minded youth leaders bear little resemblance to their more radical forbears. When fighting colonialism and apartheid, Southern Africa’s youth groups spearheaded resistance and gave new life to liberation organisations. Students and youth leaders were crucial to the formation of the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Frelimo), the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC).

The young activists argued for new tactics and policies, forcing established leaders to listen to them. Although the MPLA’s senior leaders have tried to restrict the party’s youth movement, its criticisms about corruption and the lack of accountability in the party have been made public.

Command and obey?

Youth politics are more complex in today’s Zimbabwe. Both the liberation party, ZANU-PF, and its opposition challenger, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), reflect youthful pressure for change. Young ZANU-PF militants drove demands for land resettlement which were eventually taken up by the party’s ageing leadership cabal. In the MDC, it was the young militants working with their counterparts in the trade unions that built up the party’s impressive support base across ?Zimbabwe’s cities and big towns.

The bloody violence that ZANU-PF meted out to young MDC supporters after Morgan Tsvangirai’s party won the first round of the 2008 elections dates back to 2000, when ZANU-PF set up a youth militia, the Green Bombers. It was ostensibly a training programme for unemployed youth but it became a paramilitary force to attack both the MDC and farmers resisting land-resettlement orders. According to the MDC’s Obert Ronald Madondo, the Green Bombers “deliberately sought to hijack Zimbabwe’s youth” into a force that would torture, rape and murder its opponents.

In Malawi, the current generation of young politicians takes its cue from the autocratic Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which dominated post-independence politics. The incumbent United Democratic Front (UDF), which has dominated politics since winning the 1994 election, uses its youth wing to suppress opposition. Like the MCP’s Young Pioneers, the UDF’s Young Democrats have physically attacked opposition leaders, civic activists and journalists.

Ruling parties try to suppress youthful dissent from above. The SWAPO Youth League forced out Philemon Kanime, a former director of elections, because he allowed the opposition Rally for Democracy and Progress to register as a formal political party. Kanime blasted the “command-and-obey culture” in SWAPO, saying the party is betraying the ideals for which it fought.

Youth politics are critical to Africa’s future but few of the movements heed Nelson Mandela’s call for a drive for education and training: “Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president,” he said.

Three-fifths of the unemployed in Africa are under 20. Some 70% of youths in Africa live on less than $2 a day and many of the jobless are in the countryside, with little access to education and training. On-the-job training is rare and state institutions struggle to coordinate skills-training programmes.

The youth vote is becoming increasingly powerful and the battle lines are sharpening between populists and radicals. The populists want to turn their political parties into machines to dispense patronage to unquestioning loyalists, and the radicals argue for a fierce debate over policy and real power for the grassroots.

Civic movements?

Other youths question whether either faction can meet their demands and are organising for direct protests. In South Africa, the youth have in the past few years led spontaneous protests against poor service delivery, public corruption and perceived official indifference. Sometimes youth anger turns against outsiders, as seen in the xenophobic attacks against foreigners, at other times it turns inward to gang and family violence.

Jorge Rebelo, the former head of Frelimo’s ideology department, says young Mozambicans complain they have “no space to show their commitment to improving the life of the population”. Rebelo says the youth should not be “waiting for the chiefs”, but should “act for themselves”. He says the young generation should fight against poverty and corruption but also “fight against bootlicking, flattery and ?adulation” of leaders.

These are themes of the developing political arguments in Africa’s youth movements: Will they be democratic, honest and accountable? Can they take on autocratic and corrupt forces in the political establishment and expose the political and business fraudsters in their midst??

Africa’s youth have little appetite for a rerun of patronage politics sporting a pseudo-nationalist flag. If the dominant parties’ youth movements fail to deliver, then civic activists, trade unionists and even churches will forge their own political alternatives. The voice of Africa’s youth is too loud to silence.

This article was first published in the August-September 2010 edition of The Africa Report.