Daily News: The Youth League Stakes its Claim


The Youth League Stakes its Claim

By Richard Pithouse

When the Springboks are running rampant even a drab supermarket in a small town can take on a carnival air with excited conversation moving between people without regard to all the usual barriers. But the nation, as we all know, is riven with all kinds of fractures. For the ANC some of these fractures can be useful as it seeks to sustain its moral authority while electoral support declines, popular protest continues and internal battles escalate. But other fractures pose a real challenge to the party. It’s no coincidence that Dubula iBhunu took centre stage as more and more songs about black boers were being composed in popular struggles.

None of the contending forces in the ANC has a remotely viable plan for the millions of people making their lives outside of formal employment. The assumption that everyone will, in due course, get a job and a house, is simply fantastical. Moreover none of the contending forces in the ANC can credibly claim to represent people living and working informally as a specific constituency within the alliance.

Because this constituency lives and works outside of the formal world, because it has no formal representation within the ANC, and because it is oppressed, it inhabits a space of particular political fluidity and intensity. There are multiple forms of politics, and anti-politics, within this social space and, as S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo has often warned, ‘the anger of the poor can go in many directions’. But there is no doubt that there is an ongoing ‘rebellion of the poor’. This rebellion has managed to organise disruption that, while generally sporadic in terms of its hold over particular points in space, has accumulated a significant collective national weight over time. It has ended the ability of the ANC to simply assume a right to represent the poor and, here and there, enabled the development of sustained oppositional organisation within and outside of the ANC.

When a political elite is not willing or able to meet the needs of the people it governs there are a few strategies that it can deploy to contain the situation. The most attractive strategy is usually to try and present the needs at issue as non-political. If the realm of the political, which is the space for legitimate disputation, can be successfully limited certain forms of suffering can become a matter of personal inadequacy and personal shame. This is a strategy that often fits well with both mainstream civil society and technocratic approaches to development and it allows governments, and others, to win awards and sustain their democratic credentials while keeping the oppressed in their place.

But if people are able to break through the dense web of ideology and successfully present their suffering as political, as something to be contested in the public sphere, then elites have two basic options. The first is to try and delegitimate popular opposition as criminal or as part of an anti-national conspiracy. When this fails the next step is often direct repression. The other option is to try and capture popular dissent. When a political elite goes in this direction it can be radicalised from below. There is an extent to which this has happened in Venezuela. But political elites can also succeed in channelling popular anger in a direction that is safe or even useful for them. There is an extent to which this has happened in Zimbabwe and it was at the heart of European fascism.

It is important to remember that fascism always has a social content. In 1919 the manifesto of the Italian fascists promised women the right to vote and to stand for election. In 1925 the twenty five point plan of the Nazi party demanded nationalisation of industry, an expansion of old age welfare, outlawing child labour, a return to an indigenous legal system, the right of all children to attain education and the expropriation of private land holdings.

The ANC in government has, roughly, tended to aim at depoliticisation as first prize but to turn to delegitimation and repression when depoliticisation fails. But what we are seeing now is a bold attempt by a faction of the ANC to capture popular anger.

The ANC Youth League have announced that next month they will organise mass protests at the Chamber of Mines, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and the Union Buildings to demand work, housing, education, sanitation, water, electricity and an equal share in the wealth of the country. They have made it clear that they intend to mobilise the unemployed and the underemployed, students, shack dwellers and the landless.

The Youth League are not only looking for foot soldiers. The poor are also the living proof of the failures of post-apartheid society and an attempt to cultivate a credible right to claim to speak for this constituency offers the Youth League the prospect of being able to continue with its politics of patronage, extravagant flamboyance and authoritarian machismo while simultaneously claiming to be the true guardians of the national struggle.

Sustained organisation is necessary to build a democratic mass politics centred around collective deliberation. The Youth League is largely organisationally absent from the constituency it aims to mobilise next month. But it has a massive media presence and, via its control of the Youth Development Agency, its role in systemic corruption and cosy relationships with some very rich and powerful people, a significant network organised around patronage and a large war chest. Money and media spectacle calibrated to speak with some resonance to popular grievances has often enabled an authoritarian mass politics, usually centred around individual charisma.

The first set of demands that they aim to put to capital and the state via mass protest next month, demands for work, housing, education and services, are drawn from those that have consistently emerged from the rebellion of the poor. But the demands issued from within this rebellion have often also included an insistence on the right to chose local party leaders, to hold local officials and party structures accountable and for more democratic forms of decision making. The Youth League, constructed as it is around relations of patronage, cannot support any demand that sees political inclusion as a route to economic inclusion without undermining the basis of its own power.

The Youth League’s second demand, nationalisation of the mines, is not a demand that has generally been present in popular struggles, which are often orientated around demands to local government. Clearly the Youth League hopes to persuade people that nationalisation is the best tool to provide work, houses, education and services.

It’s not unusual to hear usually sensible people argue that while Malema is plainly corrupt and authoritarian, he is still raising some important issues. This is a dangerous argument. For one thing it ignores the fact that the demand for land, housing and work, as well as inclusion in local level decision making, has been expressed, very articulately, in popular struggles. It also ignores the fact that the structural elitism of our society systemically silences the thinking that emerges within these struggles. It does this by simple repression, by misrepresenting all protest as nothing but a demand for the more efficient delivery of services and by the widespread inability, that is often as common in civil society, the media and the academy as it is in the party and the state, to grasp that people who are poor and black have the same capacity for thought, speech and agency as everyone else. In other words we don’t need Malema to raise many of these issues. They are being raised already and we simply need to recognise this.

But it is also clear that any programme of nationalisation under the control or influence of the Youth League will do nothing but damage to everyone but the faction of society that COSATU has rightly called the predatory elite. If Aurora mines is the worst case scenario and Eskom, or even SAA is the best case scenario, neither option provides any credible grounds for optimism that nationalisation will miraculously realise the legitimate aspirations of the people that the Youth League hopes to mobilise next month. The Communist Party has been quite right to point out that while nationalisation has often been a valuable tool for progressive states it is not in itself a progressive measure. With things as they are in the ANC nationalisation without socialisation, which would require considerable democratisation, will simply extend the grip of predatory elites over society.

The numbers at the last Youth League protest, at Luthuli House, were, given the resources available and the degree of public interest in the issue at hand, very low. If they fail to mobilise at a significant scale next month, and if the media doesn’t, as it often does, let its own paranoia fuel the delusion that small protests indicate mass support, the Youth League’s attempt to claim this political space will be set back.

If COSATU is serious about opposing the predatory elite it should seize the moment to begin to make a serious attempt to build a genuine and respectful solidarity with the progressive currents amidst the rebellion of the poor that recognises the right of people to organise outside of the ANC and firmly opposes the increasingly strident attempts from within the ANC to delegitimate and repress popular struggles.