The DA Youth should be abolished

Kameel Premhid on the problem with youth political formations

My colleagues and friends will probably be astounded that I am going on the record to say that the DA Youth should be abolished. But here it is: the DA Youth should go. Let me be clear though, my dislike for youth political organisations isn't limited to the DA Youth, it applies to all of them. The ANC Youth League, the IFP Youth Brigade, the whole lot - they should go.

Many people would be intrigued by this proposition: that a young person actively involved in politics and ironically, actively involved in the DA Youth would advocate that it should go. Surely, as a young person who hopes to contribute to the long-term future of my party and my country, with aspirations of a career in politics, I of all people should champion the establishment of a strong and vibrant youth organisation that champions the needs of the young.

But I don't.

Agenda Setting

My biggest gripe about youth political formations operating under the auspices of a political party is the question of agenda setting.

In the first place, I think that a separate organisation with a separate identity ends up focusing on a separate agenda.  Whilst theoretically linked to the mother party, it is my experience of these organisations that they exert an often undue pressure on the mother party to act in a particular way. I concede that these reforms may sometimes be good, if not great (look at the change of the ANC's tactics after the formation of the YL in 1943) but more often than not, it is less than desirable change (look at the same organisation post-election of Julius Malema).

And to a large extent that stems from the necessary separation that a youth organisation must enjoy from its mother party. This autonomy and independence we are often told is essential in order to develop a policy platform free from undue mother party pressure. In reality, this independence and autonomy is the basis of intra-party warfare as the mother party now fights a war on two fronts: one internally to quieten the often unsustainable and unacceptable agenda advocacy coming from within and one externally against its political opponents.

What this does is weaken the clarity and coherency of the party's voice and ultimately weakens the party's ability to set its own agenda. If you think that this is just a South African phenomenon (applying to the ANC) look at the problems the Liberal Democrats are facing with party leader Nick Clegg being subjected to a sophisticated and high-pressured attack from within his party at the hands of its youth organisation who are pressing for radical changes despite the pressures Mr Clegg faces as a governing coalition partner with the Conservative party (a political foe of the young liberals).

But perhaps my experience somewhat clouds my judgment. I was elected onto the DA's Federal Council at 18 and have served in the party's structures at all levels since I was 15. This was before the DA had introduced formalised rules to ensure youth representation on its structures (a change introduced and/or enforced since the DA Youth came about - say both introduced and enforced as some party hacks will argue that they championed the DA Youth before its 2010 launch).

As a fully-fledged member of these structures I had been elected in my own right. I was not a quota candidate or viewed as someone being granted the right of audience because I ticked some box (youth or in other organisations the gender or race ones). I had equal participatory rights as those older than me and I used them to ensure that I would be re-elected when the time came. Automatic representation of the youth because a youth organisation exists and "needs to be represented" doesn't necessarily mean that the youth organisation does anything that deserves them to be there in the first place.

An organisation arrangement such as this creates the dangerous situation of (possible) within youth organisations because of the false perception of access: because they have access to these bodies they think they can and are effectively changing the agenda. More often than not, that isn't the case (and this is used to bolster the office-holder's CV, but I shall discuss this later).

Also worryingly, this separation possibly locates the "youth issues" as being distant to the central agenda and programme of the party. Why? Simply because it creates the opportunity to "otherise" the problem.   The mother party doesn't adequately focus on "youth issues" because there is a youth organisation to deal with them. Sound familiar? I believe the women's movements of various organisations experienced the same. The struggle of gender equality was set back by granting women their own organisation and formal representation because it allowed the controlling clique (of men) to turn back questions on the women demanding answers.

The narrative changed from "What are you (the men) doing about these ("women's") issues?" to being "What are you women, now that you have a structure and access and so on, doing about "women's" issues?" The mother party's ruling clique avoided direct responsibility because they could abdicate the responsibility to others who supposedly would be able to naturally represent that cause better. And so too is the situation with the youth.

How do you change that? It's simple. You abolish the youth organisations, stop them wasting time building their own agenda that they advocate for separately and locate them within the party and make them equal players to those whose minds they are trying to change. Making youth issues for example a central issue in a mother party election, because young candidates themselves are standing and not just intending to vote in those internal elections, forces all candidates and the party itself to take youth issues more seriously. Whilst the mother party is isolated from real youth influence because of the separateness that youth themselves so crave, the mother party can ignore issues that are of significance from the youth. Direct competition posed by young people (who are the largest demographic in society) changes that.  


Probably the even bigger reason to blast these organisations from our collective memory is how shamelessly these organisations are used for the promotion of self. That is not to say that mother party politics isn't the same - that would be naïve (both on the assertion and on the very nature of politics) - but youth organisations tend to be subject to worse jostling for position. And it is understandable why that is the case: the youth organisation is seen as the way to achieving things within the mother party. That and it is often easier. Look at the career trajectory of Ministers Gigaba and Mbalula both former ANCYL Presidents and present Cabinet heavyweights (even considered in some quarters as potential leaders)

The problem with this isn't that people have ambition. It is at what cost that ambition is achieved. Julius Malema was an excellent example of how, in an effort to allow him to rise to a position where he could dominate the entire ANC, he mercilessly and ruthlessly clamped down on internal dissent within the YL, stamped his authority and identity on the organisation and then used it to play wedge politics within the Alliance.

And he did that quite effectively driving the ANC and its partners to the brink until the watershed moment where President Zuma stiffened his resolve, took Malema and his allies on and won. Note this was only Zuma was assured that Malema was not as powerful as he was. He had the example of Mbeki who tried to take on the Youth League and failed - a failure which propelled him to victory at Mangaung. Remember, Zuma basically allowed Malema a free reign when Malema's and the Youth League's power was at its greatest, allowed them to get away with virtually everything without as much as a rebuke.

This is a problem because real agenda issues are side-lined and not given the kind of attention they deserve. Because the youth organisation does not affect the programme of government and does not itself go directly to the voters, one can argue that its policy platform and ideas - or lack thereof - has no consequence. So no one cares how desperate and frightening this positioning becomes because it isn't as important as when the mother party does it. This just creates an incentive for any Malema-esque politician to play the same game Malema played. Whether they failed depends on too many factors difficult to predict and take for granted. I wouldn't take that gamble where the consequences can be so disastrous. Getting rid of this is better for the party and the country as a whole.

But Why Get Involved with the DA Youth?

There are two answers to this question.

The first is pragmatic: the ANCYL has made a name for itself and has monopolised the youth political market. As a good capitalist wanting some of that market share to the credit of the DA, I have to get involved. Breaking their hegemonic negative hold on youth politics is a must. They have shown how self-serving they are and how they cannot be trusted (opposing the youth wage subsidy is a great example despite the government being able to afford it and it helping the people they supposedly stand up for).

The second is more philosophical: hope. I have had the absolute privilege of being involved with many DA Youth colleagues across the country who have strived day in and day out to challenge the ANCYL directly and to be a better more effective voice for the youth. We have been relatively successful in that regard and will continue to advocate for a better future for all premised on the guarantee of rights and freedoms and opportunities. But more work is to be done. In the work that I have seen the DA Youth do and the work I know it will do, I know that the DA Youth will set itself apart as an organisation founded on principle and committed to the cause.

I fully concede that much of the reflection here isn't actually based on how the DA Youth or its leaders operate now. It is based on observation of mostly how the ANCYL operates. But just like how we must break the ANCYL's hegemonic hold on the youth; and the ANC's grip on the idea of true liberation we must also free our minds to think that youth politics can stand for and mean more. I have hope that the DA Youth under the current leadership of Makashule Gana and Mbali Ntuli and of its leaders to come, will break the perception that this is the only way of how youth politics is done. And in so doing strengthen the DA Youth, the DA and the futures of generations to come.

Kameel Premhid has been a member of the DA since he was 15 years old. He is now 23. In that time, Kameel has managed to be elected onto the party's Federal Council at age 17 and was 8th on the party's KZN list for parliament at age 20. He was the youngest candidate in the 2009 elections and was almost elected to parliament: the party won 7 seats. Kameel holds a BA and LLB from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and was recently awarded the prestigious KZN Rhodes Scholarship to pursue two years of study at the University of Oxford.

This article was originally published by The ChirpRoom ( ), a liberal youth blog. This forms part of a series debating the DA's future as the 2014 Elections approach ( ).

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