June 16 is upon us again, as we mark its 41st anniversary after young people took the lead in the Struggle against apartheid.

It is no exaggeration that the actions of young people then had a lasting impact on the momentum of the liberation Struggle.

It is because of that impact that we have to ask: where is the leadership of young people in the current challenges facing our country?

More pointedly: has the biggest youth organisation, the ANC Youth League, that turns 73 this year, lost its relevance with young people?

Can anything be done to help it restore itself to its former glory?

Former leaders of the youth league include Anton Lembede, OR Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, and their sole purpose was the resolution of the question of national liberation.

They did this by forcing the ANC to adopt a militant programme of action when the elders were not necessarily so inclined.

The very determination to take up arms for example, was inspired by that youth league generation after all peaceful means to freedom drew a blank.

They were not into frivolity and were not an appendage of the main body but a catalyst for greater achievements that the mother body could pursue.

June 16 was not an isolated event that showed what this youth league could contribute to the broader Struggle but a culmination of heroic deeds since the 1944 launch of this glorious movement.

There was an upsurge of new leaders who joined the Struggle after 1976, including a huge contingent that decided to take up arms and skip the country.

This generation of youth leaguers understood what their key mission was and set out to fulfil it.

Once liberation dawned in 1994, a new set of challenges was born with a mission to rebuild a society ravaged by apartheid.

The enemy was multi-pronged, from issues of substance abuse to communicable diseases, from issues of inequality and access to education. Young people were starved of leadership to confront these new realities that exist side by side with political freedom.

It didn’t take long for the youth league to lose its way. The revolutionary spirit dissipated under the leadership of the likes of Peter Mokaba, Malusi Gigaba, Fikile Mbalula and Julius Malema reaching rock bottom under the bland Collin Maine.

While some of these leaders did well under the circumstances of general political apathy, sadly they were nothing compared to the revolutionary interventions of the youth leagues of Mandela and Sisulu.

The league lost its sting over the last 23 years. There is no fundamental policy shift over the last 23 years taken by the democratic state that was as a result of the intervention of the youth league.

Even the areas such as the higher education act were championed more by Sasco than by the youth league.

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The league failed to lobby for the simplest of things such as the provision of sanitary towels for young women or even the realisation of free education for all.

While young people in the mould of Azaso and even Sansco were known for high-level policy articulation in the build-up to freedom, while they were known for contributing to the shaping of ANC policy and dialogues towards a free society and the achievement of the NDR (National Democratic Revolution), the current youth league is yet to release a single policy position that is earth-shattering.

It has instead mastered the art of public insult as a modus operandi of public discourse and engagement. This is why it was caught napping by the latter day youth uprisings of fees must fall – the only recognisable student struggles worthy of note since 1976.

The youth league and indeed the entire progressive youth alliance were found napping and even worse had a pathetic response to this crisis, even seeking to hijack it as their own.

They are so blinded by their support for President Jacob Zuma that they failed to make him implement the simplest of resolutions – free education for all. They have become irrelevant to the majority of young people.

This lot has betrayed its mission fundamentally. The ANC leadership is also to blame as it created no environment for a dynamic and radical youth league to flourish and saw the youth league as voting fodder for power play.

When the current leadership was elected both Zuma and (Cyril) Ramaphosa gave them marching orders to defend the ANC as if that is the only thing they are good for. They didn’t inspire them to emulate the generations that came before them.

The youth would have demanded leadership with a better vision to rescue the liberation movement from the crisis of a loss of legitimacy in the people’s eyes whose expectations are daily dashed.

One hopes that the 41st anniversary of the 1976 uprisings will reignite a new generation of youth leaders who can rediscover their mission and fulfil it for the sake of our future.

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