Give the youth a real voice to get them interested
Date Released: Wed, 9 October 2013 09:00 +0200
IF POLITICAL parties wonder why many young people don’t bother about party politics, they should look at the way they treat those who do.
No one seemed to find it odd when African National Congress Youth League convener Mzwandile Masina said the league was endorsing Cyril Ramaphosa for deputy president — after all, for more than 20 years, the league has attracted attention by endorsing ANC leaders for office. But the endorsement should have attracted attention because it is not clear why Masina felt the need to endorse anyone.
The present league leadership, which he heads, is unelected — it was appointed by the ANC after the expulsion of Julius Malema. As no one voted for it, its endorsement expresses the opinion of no one except those who issued it. Either the league’s leaders are pretending to have a mandate from members, which they lack, or they are conveying a message from the ANC leadership — or both.
At first glance, the fact that appointed interim administrators without a mandate from ANC youth endorse leaders may seem a sign of how low the league has sunk since the ANC closed down its previous leadership. But in reality, it is business as usual.
First, it has been a while since any league leaders were clearly elected by its members. Malema was elected twice. First time around, most league provinces complained that he had won unfairly: the ANC leadership, which saw him as an ally, refused to do anything. The second time, he was unopposed after, among other things, getting police to run his opponents out of a meeting in Limpopo so they couldn’t vote against his chosen candidate. Later, elected provincial league leaders were removed for not doing what they were told. Members were not consulted.
Before Malema, league leadership election results were accepted. But leaders took their cue from senior politicians rather than their members. One of the enduring myths about the ANC since it resumed operating legally in 1990 is that the league is a "kingmaker", which decides who runs the mother body.
In reality, league leaders were doing the bidding of senior politicians who, because young people are energetic and enthusiastic, found it useful to recruit the league. At the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference, then league president Fikile Mbalula efficiently got out the vote for the winning slate headed by Jacob Zuma. But he and the league did not decide who the candidate was — older politicians did. So the only difference between the present league leadership and its predecessors is that this one openly endorses candidates without a mandate from members, while previous incumbents could pass themselves off as representatives acting on the will of members.
The league’s "kingmaker" tag may, ironically, have weakened it. Because its chief function has been to support candidates, it has become a vehicle for individuals’ ambitions. Policy, programmes and the wishes of members all take a back seat behind mobilising on behalf of candidates.
None of this is an advertisement for youth involvement in party politics. And it could have something to do with the fact that, according to the Independent Electoral Commission, only 12% of people aged 18-19 have registered to vote. The older politicians who use the league may pay a price: reduced participation by young people.
But why generalise about youth in party politics by looking at only what the ANC does? Don’t the other parties have youth wings that speak for their members? The first answer is that party loyalties in this country are strong; it often takes a lot to persuade people to abandon their party. So the league of the party endorsed by just less than two-thirds of voters in the most recent election may be the only political party vehicle many if not most young people see as their only credible choice. This alone would make its apparent indifference to the youth voice important.
The second is that, while most party youth wings seem not to have become vehicles of senior politicians seeking office, there are few signs of a vibrant youth presence in party politics. Despite the very occasional controversial advertisement by the Democratic Alliance Youth, there are few cases of a youth wing placing issues on the agenda. They are not breeding grounds for fresh ideas.
None of this means our youth are apathetic. We have more than enough young people with opinions who are willing to act on them. The 65% of people aged 20-29 who are registered to vote are a healthy percentage by world standards. But it does mean party politics has little to offer young people who want more than a vehicle for personal ambition, and this may explain why so few people who reach voting age rush to register.
Party leaders worried about low youth enthusiasm may care to consider that their own unwillingness to give young people a real say in their parties may be a reason. As they caused the problem, it is in their power to fix it.
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.