Sunday Times

Our young people must start to act like grown-ups


Given that ours is a fairly young country, with most of its qualifying voters classified as youth, do political parties need youth wings? In line with the country’s national youth policy, most political parties define youth as any person between the ages of 14 and 35. Membership of most political parties is open from the age of 18.

So why must a 30-year-old devote his energies to the activities of a youth wing of a party when he can just as easily do so in the main political party? Are youth wings inadverten­tly keeping young people out of mainstream politics at a time when new and fresh ideas are needed to take SA forward?

The youth have always played an important role in changing the course of modern South African history.

Take the ANC of the late 1930s and early 1940s. The organisati­on was moribund when some of its younger members decided to form themselves into the ANC Youth League under the leadership of AP Mda and Anton Lembede.

The league brought new energy to the mother body, helping to transform the ANC from an irrelevant gentlemen’s club into a mass-based organisati­on that successful­ly carried out political programmes such as the 1952 Defiance Campaign.

In the 1970s, following the banning of anti-apartheid groupings a decade earlier, it was the youth who revived resistance politics within the country, culminatin­g in the 1976 uprisings.

One cannot speak of the 1980s without mentioning the role played by youth and student organisati­ons in “rendering apartheid SA ungovernab­le” and contributi­ng to forcing the then government to the negotiatin­g table.

But since then, what has been the role of youth formations linked to political parties in post-apartheid SA?

I find myself asking this question every time I see a group of ANC-affiliated youth — some admittedly looking suspicious­ly on the wrong side of 40 and some who are parents of university students — staging yet another protest demanding the revival of the ANC Youth League. (To be fair to the comrades who look like old uncles in the youth league, age is nothing but a number in the national democratic revolution; just have a look at your average MK Military Veterans Associatio­n and you will see old soldiers who look as if they were born long after PW Botha left office in 1989.)

For the uninitiate­d, the youth league — once a political home to the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu in the 1940s — collapsed almost a decade ago with the expulsion of Julius Malema from the ANC. Malema subsequent­ly formed the EFF.

Since then numerous attempts have been made to revive the organisati­on, only for those efforts to be thwarted by the mother body, whose leaders always try to impose on the party a youth leadership sympatheti­c to the dominant faction.

The “young lions” are trying again, having now been permitted by the ANC’s national executive committee to form an interim structure that will lead the organisati­on to an elective national conference.

But what is the point of a 34-year-old seeking to run a toothless youth wing when real politics and power reside within the mother body?

With a young population such as ours, there should be more young people playing central roles in our politics and coming up with new ideas. Yet, with the exception of a few political parties, there are not many coming through the ranks who look ready to take SA to a new level.

They waste too much time in the youth wings. By the time they reach their 50s they still consider themselves as “youth” and show no sign of the maturity that will make them eligible for serious leadership.

Hence, despite the country’s youthfulne­ss, one will not be surprised next year, when the race for the ruling party’s next leadership begins, to see that most of the key candidates are men and women on the wrong side of 65.

Even if the younger candidates come through, the youth-wing types will most likely prove to be unsuitable for what needs to be done to take SA forward because they are steeped in the politics of patronage and self-entitlemen­t that plunged our country into a morass.

For the youth to rise and play its role, the leagues must die.

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