Why young politicos matter in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG — Mpho Tsedu made no secret of his intentions as he grabbed the microphone recently at a music club in downtown Johannesburg.

“I am an ordinary member of the African National Congress Youth League who has taken an extraordinary task of ensuring that the people of South Africa mobilize around the mission of the ANC,” he said to a group of young professionals — many of them white.

And an extraordinary task it is. Just a week before national elections on April 22, the ruling party is all but assured of victory thanks to unwavering support from most of South Africa's black majority, especially the country’s poorest voters.

But the ANC is not certain to keep the all-important two-thirds majority in parliament that it secured five years ago. To make sure it does, it has tasked its Youth League with mobilizing all voters.

As a result, the Youth League has tried to woo new constituencies in recent weeks, from members of South Africa’s Chinese community, to Afrikaners and Zulus from the coastal province of Kwazulu-Natal, a stronghold of the Inkhata Freedom Party.

Tsedu’s audience at the music club is another group of potential voters not traditionally aligned with the ANC. However, the Youth League’s efforts to reach out to new voters have been hindered by its own leader, Julius Malema.

A former student leader, “Malema has become one of the most important voices and faces” of the ANC, said political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi. Malema’s rousing addresses have done much to energize the ANC’s core constituency composed of poor and working class voters. He also played a big part in the groundswell that led Jacob Zuma to the presidency of the ANC in 2007 at the expense of former President Thabo Mbeki.

But Malema’s confrontational style also has had its pitfalls. He has vowed to “kill for Zuma,” has called a political opponent “racist “and said the woman who accused Zuma of rape (he was acquitted) “had a nice time” with him. He also mocked the current education minister — and a member of the ANC’s national executive committee — for her “fake American accent” but was in that case forced by the ANC to apologize. A blog recently has been dedicated to Malema’s missteps.

Matshiqi said that Malema alienates others in the middle class or the mainstream media but he appeals to the ANC's core voters.

“If crossover appeal is an indicator, then no, he’s not doing a good job because he doesn’t have such crossover appeal, but if you are looking at whether he retains significant portions of the ANC’s support base then he is doing a good job because his message is not alienating to that support base,” Matshiqi said.

Formed in 1944, just before the beginning of the apartheid regime, the ANC Youth League is credited with reinvigorating the ANC, which had been lagging since its founding more than three decades earlier. Several original leaders of the Youth League became heavyweights of South Africa’s liberation struggle, including Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. Mandela was also one of the youth league’s first presidents.

Historically the Youth League has been a more radical element of the party that has provided important shifts in ideology, said Adam Habib, a political commentator and deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. Habib said the league also has played a crucial role in training its leaders for higher political responsibilities, but he stressed that the league’s current leaders don’t measure up to their predecessors.

“I think that there is a fundamental difference between Malema today and Mandela in the 1940s, even in stature, in capacity, in intellectual substance,” he said. “Mandela was much more intellectually substantive.”

At the Johannesburg music club, Ryan Norwood-Young, a 28-year-old musician, told Tsedu that the ANC would have to work hard to earn his vote. “I don’t like hearing that they will kill for their leader,” he said. “It’s childish politics.”

Tsedu gave a convoluted response that seemed to convince neither Norwood-Young nor himself. After all, Tsedu later admitted that he had supported Malema’s opponent for the league’s leadership position. And he won’t have to defend Malema for much longer. At 35, Tsedu faces mandatory retirement from the Youth League.

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