Much of the analysis of the ANC Youth League's two-day march for economic freedom in Joburg at the end of October focused on the narrow political issues of whether it could save the organisation's president, Julius Malema, from being sidelined — just as subsequent recent coverage of the youth league was obsessed almost exclusively with its leader's continuing battle for some form of political survival.

The march itself took place over 80km, of which Malema reportedly walked 35, between Joburg and Pretoria, following a year of almost non-stop political battles for the 30-year-old youth leader.

His struggles inside and outside court since last year over his singing of the old struggle song shoot the Boer (Dubul' iBhunu) was succeeded by a fight to be re-elected as the president of the league, which Malema won unopposed in June, and more recently his suspension, which he has vociferously opposed, on charges of misconduct.

In such a context the defiant gesture of marching and singing — which draws upon SA's heritage of protest — may have appeared entirely fitting, and the analysis of its effectiveness in boosting Malema's political fortunes appropriate.

However, in the history of the national tradition of protest, marches have tended to be for grand causes and tethered to issues of great symbolic importance.

By contrast, it is not so easy to discern what the "economic freedom" march was seeking (other, perhaps, than Malema's political survival and continuing personal enrichment, if the reports are to be believed), particularly in relation to the broader interests of the young South Africans, who the league purports to represent.

More than 7 million young South Africans are unemployed. The problem is clearly a significant one, as was recently acknowledged when the National Treasury released a discussion paper in February titled "Confronting youth unemployment: policy options for SA".

The document examines a range of approaches to the issue, such as the creation of a youth employment subsidy, training to meet national skills shortages, and the expansion of higher education opportunities to create a larger pool of employable young people.

However, this is a paper on which the youth league has maintained a strange silence, and a discussion from which it has been absent.

Rather than focusing on marching, singing songs and seeking re-election, the league and its organisers could have been leading serious discussions in all the provinces to shape and advance policies that benefit young people by addressing the monumental challenges that they confront.

As part of such an engagement with young people, the youth league could take the ANC Freedom Charter of 1955 as a working document to raise and discuss the fundamental issue of access to education.

The importance of education in SA as a tool to liberate poor people was recently emphasised by UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price, in a lecture at the London School of Economics. Price said educated black people in post-apartheid SA had moved into the upper echelons of society, into positions that would have been denied them before 1994 (half of those who now comprise the wealthiest 10 percent of SA society are black), but in rural areas, where most people lack proper educational opportunities, poverty remained the norm.

Clearly, the corrupt allocation of government contracts that has created a class of "tenderpreneurs" and in which so many aspiring young politicians seem to be involved, is not the only route to a better life.

Another policy on which the youth league should be focusing more attention is that of how best to address the shortage of skills among young South Africans.

The league could also usefully consider the issue of xenophobia, which intimately involves many young people. The International Organisation for Migration reported in 2008 that the perpetrators of xenophobic violence were mainly young. The youth league could play an important role in educating young people about the debt owed by the ANC and its youth to the support of other African countries in the struggle, particularly among the former front-line states — Zambia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland — from which many of SA's present immigrants have come.

These countries sheltered, trained, and educated many of the ANC leaders who helped to liberate SA.

Marching for "economic freedom" means little if it is not backed by coherently expressed, substantive policies designed to bring about that emancipation.

Inspection of the youth league's website reveals an organisation apparently long on speeches, but almost silent on policies. The youth league provides little, if any strategic direction, on the critical issues for most young people: education, employment and health (in particular, HIV/Aids).

African-American Nobel peace prize laureate Martin Luther King jr once noted: "Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think."

After the marches and songs are done and the shopkeepers have cleaned up the streets, and after the political fallout from Malema's bid to cling to power has dissipated, the most important question will remain: is the youth league and its leadership prepared to do the less than glamorous political work of developing and promoting policies that will lift the young people whom they seek to represent out of poverty?

Oscar Siwali is a senior project officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town.


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