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Address by ANC Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to the 64th Anniversary of the ANC Youth League
10 September 2008
The foundation of the ANC Youth League 64 years ago was a momentous occasion, signalling the birth of a new force in the struggle to liberate South Africans from the yoke of white minority rule.
It signalled the birth of a new organisational entity that could give political expression to the aspirations of a new generation of young Africans. It was an occasion that had a profound impact on the African National Congress, and on the course of South African history.
The Youth League not only set out a radical new programme for direct confrontation with the racist system, but it presented a fresh political perspective that, while drawing on the ideological traditions of its forebears, provided a coherent and challenging view of the priorities and tasks of the moment.
Since the establishment of the league, the youth have, at critical moments in our history, made significant interventions to provide much-needed impetus and direction to the struggle for democracy.
The young lions have been at the forefront of struggle. More than that, they have often provided the political clarity and intellectual depth that has enabled the ANC to develop strategies and tactics suitable to the conditions of the time.
At all important moments, the youth have distinguished themselves as fighters, organisers, theorists, and tacticians.
We think of the founders of the league, whose critical contribution to remoulding the movement in the late-1940s laid the basis for the development of the ANC into a mass movement. Many of the leaders of the youth league were at the forefront of the defiance campaign of the 1950s. They were among the first to join Umkhonto we Sizwe, and they were among the first to go to prison for their participation in the armed struggle.
They were prepared to take onto their shoulders the responsibility of bringing down the mighty apartheid state. These youth withstood repression and brutality, going to prison in their thousands. They faced harassment, expulsion, torture and death for their commitment to freedom.
As we gather here to mark this important anniversary, we remember these sacrifices and pay tribute to those young people who lost their lives so that we may live in a free and democratic society.
In remembering these martyrs, we must pledge ourselves to continue the struggle for which they sacrificed all, the struggle to liberate all our people from all forms of oppression and exploitation.
Thanks to them, we are called upon to fight this struggle under conditions that are fundamentally changed. No longer do we have to confront a racist and brutal state. No longer do we face the possibility of prison or worse for our activism. No longer do we need to struggle to overthrow a fascist system. No longer are we called upon to make this country ungovernable.
Yet, though the terrain of struggle may have changed, the objectives remain the same.
We must remain as determined and as committed as the youth before us to do everything possible to advance the struggle to achieve a better life for all. We must look to the visionary youth of 1944, and those of successive generations, for inspiration and guidance as we work to tackle the challenges of the present.
Because we find ourselves on a much changed terrain of struggle, we cannot rely on the methods of struggle that served previous generations of youth. We can adopt a range of methods and tactics - and wield an array of new instruments - that were simply not available to them.
We are able to operate legally, speak freely, organise openly. We have the opportunity to use the instruments of the democratic state to respond to the needs of the poor and vulnerable in our society. Importantly, we can shape policy and mobilise resources to qualitatively improve the situation of youth.
We may not need to employ the same methods as those of previous generations of youth. But we can draw on the rich tradition of activism, innovation, organisation and intellectual engagement that they embodied. We should seek to emulate in our actions their determination, steadfast commitment, selflessness, humility, and readiness to sacrifice.
The ANC Youth League should make use of the presence within our midst of members of each generation of youth since the formation of the league. It can consult with those of the 1944 generation, like Isithwalandwe Nelson Mandela, `Squire`Makgothi and Nthatho Motlana, and with the generations of youth that followed.
As we recall the momentous achievements of the youth of this country, we are challenged to define the contribution that this generation of youth will make to advance the cause of our people towards a better life for all.
We are challenged to examine what it is that history asks of this generation of young people. And we are challenged to demonstrate how this generation will respond.
Though we find ourselves in a different epoch, the challenges we face - as youth and as a nation - are nevertheless daunting.
We have defeated apartheid. But its legacy lives on, in the form of widespread poverty and unemployment, deepening inequality, landlessness, homelessness, skills shortages, disease, and underdevelopment. In all these challenges, young people are disproportionately affected.
How should this generation of youth respond to these challenges?
The changed political environment has also had a profound impact on our movement. It has created the space for careerism and opportunism within our ranks. It has fuelled discord within our structures, encouraging factionalism and patronage.
It has seen the spirit of sacrifice and selflessness that has long characterised our movement gradually eroded by the imperative of self-advancement.
This has narrowed the space for open political debate within our structures, it has undermined political work, and severely impacted on our capacity to remain in dynamic engagement with the people.
How should this generation of youth respond to these challenges?
We raise these questions not simply for the sake of it, but because our history tells us that whenever we find ourselves in challenging times we should look to the youth for leadership.
Certainly, the role of the ANC Youth League is to organise youth into the congress movement, and to introduce them into the politics of the ANC so that they may, in time, develop as capable and committed cadres of the African National Congress.
But the ANC Youth League is much more than that. The league is, in its own right, an organised force for fundamental democratic transformation. It possesses the political capacity to provide strategic direction on the critical challenges facing our movement and society.
There are some who consider it the task of the ANC Youth League merely to be militant; to infuse the democratic movement with the exuberance and impatience that is expected of youth.
That is both to misunderstand and to undermine the role of the ANC Youth League.
It is also to diminish the role that youth in general are expected to play in changing our society.
Our history has shown us that the organised progressive youth of our country are not about empty rhetoric or mindless radicalism. They are seasoned political actors, capable of demonstrating a level of insight and responsibility not normally associated with those so young.
The youth of this generation should be no different. They too need to shoulder the burden of forging a coherent strategic vision and developing a political programme that ensure a qualitative shift in the pace and direction of our national liberation struggle.
They too need to provide direction on the most difficult challenges of the day. They too need to organise and mobilise youth in their numbers to work to practically undertake these tasks.
Perhaps the Youth League should revisit the tasks that are captured in its logo. The spear, the hammer and the book symbolise, in that order, the key tasks of the league - to fight, produce, learn.
The league may want to consider what tasks it should give priority to in the current epoch. It may want to change the order of its symbols so that the book, the hammer, and the spear reflect the priority to learn, produce, and defend the gains of the revolution.
Though we are today faced with significant challenges, we need also to acknowledge the achievements of our movement since the advent of democracy.
In 14 years, the ANC has turned this country around. Working together with all sections of society, we have reversed the decline of the economy and overseen an unprecedented period of sustained economic growth.
We have redirected public resources towards the poor. We have provided housing, water, electricity and other basic services to the poor on a scale never before seen in this country`s history. Through our social development programmes, specifically social grants, we have sought to alleviate the conditions of millions of the poor. We have significantly expanded access to health care and schooling.
Thanks to the effective management of public finances, and sustained economic growth, we are now able to undertake a massive investment in economic and social infrastructure, stimulating further economic activity, creating work opportunities, and meeting people`s needs.
In all these achievements, youth have been present. They have both been beneficiaries of progress, as well as playing an important role in making it happen. Young South Africans have been present in every significant area of development over the last decade or so.
They have taken to heart the slogan of: "Nothing about us without us."
The task we now face is to deepen the participation of youth as we move forward to consolidate and advance these gains. As we work to accelerate change, we need to ensure that young people are empowered to drive the process.
We need to communicate the message that the future of this country depends on the actions of the youth today.
We need to communicate the message that for this country to prosper the youth must remain involved and engaged in the political, economic, cultural and social life of the nation.
That is why one of the most immediate tasks we must undertake is to prepare the youth to participate in the 2009 election campaign. We must equip them, through the exercise of their democratic vote, to shape their future.
We should use the occasion of the celebration of the great achievements of South Africa`s youth to call on all young people to get their ID books and register now to vote.
The voice of young people needs to be heard. We are therefore calling on our youth to get involved in the democratic process, to use the power of the vote to speak up on the issues that most concern them.
Between today and the open voter registration weekend on 8-9 November, we need to undertake a massive campaign to energise and mobilise young people in particular to go to their nearest voting station to register as voters.
It is an enduring tribute to the generation of 1944, and those that were to follow, that young people now have the opportunity to shape their future through the ballot box.
Youth today find themselves faced with new challenges, but also new opportunities, and have new means at their disposal to bring about change.
But the ultimate objective has not changed. Nor has the fighting spirit of the young lions been diminished.
We therefore face the future with confidence, secure in the knowledge that the youth of our country will continue to enrich, strengthen and advance our struggle.
Let me conclude with a stanza from a poem by Bertold Brecht entitled `In Praise of Learning`. He writes:
"Study the easy things: nothing comes too late for those whose day is about to dawn. Study your A-B-C. True, it`s not enough, but study it. Don`t neglect your potential but learn! Knowledge is essential. You must be ready to take over."