Sihle Zikalala. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Sihle Zikalala. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

JULIUS Malema, Fikile Mbalula and Malusi Gigaba might look like an incongruous trio, not least because they are no longer on the same side or pursuing the same goals.

But not so long ago the former presidents of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) — and many before them — played the role of the ANC frontline troopers at election time, during their respective terms.

The ANC has often been at loggerheads with the leaders of its youth league.

In the 1990s, for example, former president Nelson Mandela admonished youth leader Peter Mokaba for his use of the slogan "Kill the boer, kill the farmer".

However, if there is a time that the ANC needs the youth league, it is just before an election. But this time the youth league has been silent, despite the general election being just over five months away.

No one is even responding to the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) billboard campaign blaming the ANC for e-tolling in Gauteng — something unthinkable under former firebrand leaders of the league.

In the heat of the 2011 municipal elections, Mr Malema had no qualms calling DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko a "tea girl" who takes orders from DA leader Helen Zille, "the madam".

Mr Malema was expelled from the ANC last year.

With an interim structure now running the youth league, this means the ANC next year will for the first time go into an election without a full complement of its reliable foot soldiers.

It also does not help that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) — a member of the ANC’s tripartite alliance, and also effective at election time — is riddled with factionalism and a leadership battle. Some of Cosatu’s affiliates have even threatened to withhold their contribution to the ANC’s campaign budget.

This creates an unprecedented vacuum in the ANC’s elections campaign machinery, which may also undermine the party’s chances of reaching out to the crucial youth voting bloc.

This week the Independent Electoral Commission said 2-million more first-time voters are still expected to register for next year.

But the party’s contact with the youth is weak and limited when the youth league is limping. This is in stark contrast to when the youth league added spark, excitement and colour to the ANC’s election campaign in 2009.

The youth league coined the phrase "ANC Rocks", designed "bling" T-shirts and took the ANC’s campaign to night clubs and "buy and braai" spots. Mr Mbalula spearheaded the campaign.

"The vibrancy of the ANC Youth League campaign captured the imagination of young people, many accepting the ANC as their political home, declaring that the ANC ‘rocks’ and that it is ‘cool’ to be part of the ANC," President Jacob Zuma said afterwards.

The sentiments emerging out of the ANC’s top echelons last week were that the interim leaders of the league — who were appointed in April — have had their priorities twisted. The ANC national executive committee said its meeting "highlighted issues that the youth league should avoid".

ANC KwaZulu-Natal secretary Sihle Zikalala took it up a notch last Thursday in his lecture on the youth league. He warned that the league’s interim structures had a responsibility to campaign for the ANC "to win the elections" and avoid being distracted by political ambitions.

In response, the league announced a raft of youth development campaigns for this month, piggy-backing on three long-running events — the OR Tambo walk in Ekurhuleni in Gauteng, the OR Tambo Sports Games in Mpumalanga, and the government’s October national transport month — as a part of their groundwork. The announcement appeared to have been organised in a rush, coming just four days after the ANC national executive committee also imposed a deadline of September next year for the youth league to elect a new national leadership.

Mr Zikalala says the league’s task team leaders must "avoid using the opportunity to position themselves for elections through improper and illegitimate practices. A tendency of using the (league) as a stepping ladder for positions in the ANC or in Parliament must be avoided."

The task team has admitted to circulating a list among the youth league structures of potential candidates to serve for the ANC in Parliament after next year’s general election.

ANC youth league interim chairman Mzwandile Masina says the youth league needs "proper and credible structures on the ground" in order to pursue its mission of promoting the vision of the ANC among young people.

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga says the league is "in a state of paralysis and the national task team is not cracking it as well.

"The ANC is going into elections without a reliable and critical platform," says Mr Mathekga.

"It is going to be a difficult election," he says.

While the situation does not necessarily mean that the ruling party will lose next year’s election, taking to the ground in the absence of the traditional storm troopers is likely to be more difficult for the party’s older bodies.