LAST year started with jitters for the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, and this year is unlikely to be different with the threat of financial liquidation still looming over the league.
The ANC national conference in Mangaung in December 2012 had given the party’s new national executive committee a mandate to give the league special attention.
The delegates at the conference overwhelmingly re-elected President Jacob Zuma to lead the party for a second term, snubbing the youth league’s push to replace Mr Zuma with Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.
For some in the then youth league national executive committee, which was virtually leaderless since president Julius Malema was expelled and secretary-general Sindiso Magaqa suspended in April 2012, it was a foregone conclusion that in Mangaung, the Zuma faction of the ANC would move to dissolve the league.
But, today the ANC finds itself struggling to get its campaign for this year’s national elections in full swing because of the structural paralysis in the youth league, which was dissolved in March last year. An interim leadership was appointed in April.
This means the ANC will go into an election for the first time without a full complement of its reliable foot soldiers. The league’s national task team recently disbanded the last two of its nine provincial structures — Eastern Cape and Gauteng — in a contentious decision that saw the ANC called in to mediate.
The crippled state of the league may undermine the party’s chances of reaching out to the crucial youth voting bloc. At least 20% of the voting population this year will be young people, some of them first-time voters. A critical part of these voters will be middle-class youth, who are not dependent on state social services and increasingly appear to be sympathetic to opposition messages.
Research has shown that nearly 75% of those aged 20-29 — many of whom are seen leading municipal service delivery protests — did not vote in the 2011 municipal elections. The message is clear: they are unhappy with the performance of their political leaders.
But the ANC’s contact with the youth is limited when the youth league is limping.
The youth league added spark, excitement and colour to the ANC’s election campaign in 2009. It coined the phrase "ANC Rocks", designed "bling" T-shirts and took the ANC’s campaign to night clubs and "buy and braai" spots.
This time, instead of lobbying young people to back the ANC, the league has to raise funds to avoid liquidation at the end of this month over debt of more than R15m.
The embarrassment of the league being liquidated, and so soon after the passing in December of one of its founders, Nelson Mandela, would be the last thing Mr Zuma needs as he prepares for a second term in government, a second chance for him to craft a memorable presidential legacy.
But the ANC is not in a position to rescue the league. The party’s record in government over the past years will come under scrutiny, and it will need all its financial resources to launch a vigorous campaign for this year’s highly contested election.
Also, former treasurer Mathews Phosa had told the conference in Mangaung that the party should consider stringent austerity measurers to curb its ballooning costs, especially on administration.
The liquidation case against the league was brought by Z2 Presentations, an events management company contracted by the league for its national conference in Bloemfontein in 2008, when Mr Malema was first elected.
The league has acknowledged that it owes Z2 a debt estimated at R15m. However, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe told the court that the league was broke and had no assets that could be sold to settle its debts.
Z2 denied Mr Mantashe’s claims, saying that only a thorough and independent investigation could establish the whereabouts of the league’s missing assets in mining, telecommunications and other industries — estimated to be worth more than R100m.
But, more than the money, the league is still faced with the challenge of restoring its battered image. It has to demonstrate that it still has the capacity to connect with young people, and therefore continues to be a reliable campaign machine for the ANC.
At the media briefing where it made a request for donations, the league also roped in entrepreneur and entertainment mogul Sibusiso Leope, alias DJ Sbu, for an appearance — as well as two other young local musicians. Mr Leope’s influence among young people is not in doubt. He has been selected by Forbes magazine as among the young Africans to look out for, and one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 young people to take to lunch.
The association with the Leope brand seems to be intended to give the league some appeal among his followers in radio, television and music. Mr Leope, 36, says there is no shame in being associated with the ANC or its youth wing.
"The ANC is in government and runs the country. I’m a businessman. I need to know the direction this country is taking and what the political parties are doing to arm myself. And yes, I want to be wealthy," says Mr Leope.
"You have to network and make relationships in order to survive. Whether you’re networking in the political or business space, I think it is a good thing."
But he insists: "I’m proactive in my business and I do not do tenders. I do not go around asking for tenders."