ANC Youth League: A youthful 52

20 November 1996

The birth of the ANC Youth League was a milestone in the history of the ANC.

In the early 1940`s, a group of young members of the ANC became concerned with the lack of militancy and mass character of the liberation movement. Most of these young people were teachers, lawyers and students, including notables such as Anton Lembede, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Ashby Mda, Duma Nokwe, James Njongweni, Dan Tloome, Ida Mtwa, Lillian Ngoye, William Nkomo and B. Masekela.

These young ANC members soon started canvassing the idea of forming a youth league of the ANC. This idea was widely canvassed and at the 1942 Annual Conference a resolution was passed calling for the formation of the ANC Youth League; this was re-affirmed at the 1943 annual conference and the National Executive was mandated to facilitate the formation of both the Youth and Women`s Leagues.

The ANC Youth League was formally launched on 2 April 1944 at the Bantu Men`s Social Centre in Johannesburg. On 10 September at the same venue Anton Lembede was elected as the first President.

Soon after its formation, the ANC Youth League moved from merely critising the non-effectiveness of the ANC in challenging the white regime, and started proposing ways of transforming the ANC into a mass-based liberation movement.

The Youth League saw itself playing a twin role in the ANC: to act as a body of opinion within the ANC and as an organ mobilising the youth around the vision of the ANC.

In its Launching Manifesto which was released by the Provisional Executive Committee in March, 1944 shortly before the inaugural meeting the Youth League said:

"In response to the demands of the times, African youth is laying its services at the disposal of the national liberation movement, the African National Congress, in the firm beliefe, knowledge and conviction that the cause of the African must and will triumph."

1949 became one of the most historic moments in the life of the ANC Youth League, when the ANC Conference in Bloemfontein adopted its proposed Programme of Action. The Programme of Action was seen as a complete departure from the old ineffective liberal methods to a more radical African Nationalism grounded in the principle of national selfdetermination. The Programme proposed the use of new tactics such as boycotts, strikes and civil disobedience, and formed the basis for the Defiance Campaign and the Congress of the People.

The Youth League not only radically changed the strategy, tactics and programme of the movement, but was also influential in changing the leadership of the ANC. Dr Xuma was replaced by Dr. JS Moroka as President and Walter Sisulu was elected as Secretary of the ANC. Other Youth Leaguers such as OR Tambo, AP Mda, Dr JLZ Njongweni and Dan Thloome were also elected to the National Executive of the ANC.

The 1950`s saw the ANC grow into a mass revolutionary movement leading the oppressed people in defiance against the apartheid laws which the National Party speedily introduced after its election victory in 1948. The ANC Youth League played a key role in the mass activities and campaigns of the ANC, and increasingly its members were being elected to key leadership positions in the ANC.

Towards the end of the 1950`s, the ANC Youth League as an organisation started to decline, with most of its leadership, being absorbed into the ANC.


With the banning of the ANC and the PAC in 1960, the ANC Youth League ceased to exist. However, when thousands of young people left the country to join the ANC after the 1976 uprising, it was once again necessary to create an organ to look after the issues and interests of young people in the ANC.

The ANC Youth Section was created and some of its early leaders include Thabo Mbeki, Joe Nhahlanla, Teboho Mafole, Billy Modise and later Jackie Selebi. Its activities included looking after the welfare of students and the international mobilisation of youth against apartheid.


In 1968, Steve Biko and others walked out of the NUSAS Conference, and in 1969 they formed the South African Students Organisation. SASO and later SASM played a leading role in the black consciousness movement, the Soweto student uprisings of 1976 and what became the revival of an internal resistance movement, after the repression of the 1960`s.

In 1977, SASO and other organisations were banned, and hundreds of its leaders imprisoned - including well-known leaders such as Steve Biko who later died in detention, Dan Montsitsi and Murphy Morobe and others.


The post 1976 repression only managed for a short period to disorganised the internal resistance movement. In June 1979, the Congress of South Africa (COSAS) was formed, an organisation which played a leading role in the mobilisation of youth and students in the 1980`s.

In reponse to growing youth unemployment in the early 80`s, COSAS at its 1981 Congress adopted a resolution calling for the formation of Youth Congresses in order to ensure the mobilisation of youth who were not in school. During the same period it also influence AZASO, an organisation of university students formed in 1979, to shed its black consciousness ideology and to move closer to the Congress movement. When the UDF was formed in 1983, COSAS, NUSAS and AZASO formed an alliance as the progressive student movement.

Following the resolution of COSAS, youth congresses mushroomed throughout the country, in particular in response to the call from the ANC to "Make the country ungovernable, Make apartheid unworkable." A national committee was set up to work towards the launch of a National Youth Organisation. Members of the NYO committee included people such as Deacon Mate, Aleck Nchabeleng, Peter Mokaba, Stanza Bopape, Obed Bapela, Dan Motsitsi, David Abrahamse, Rose Sonto, Cassel Mathale and Frans Mohlala.

The youth and students of the 1980`s played a big role in the mobilisation of mass resistance against apartheid structures, and in building unity in communities. This earned them the name "Young Lions of struggle" from the then President of the ANC, the late OR Tambo. Thousands of them were detained and many more were subjected to continuous harassment by security forces.

In the midst of the State of Emergency, the South African Youth Congress (SAYCO) was formed in March 1987 at a secret meeting in Cape Town. Its first executive included Peter Mokaba as President, Rapu Molekane - Secretary General, Simon Ntombela, Mzimasi Mancotywa, Fawcett Mathebe, Andy Sefothlelo, Ephraim Nkwe and Dipou Peters. SAYCO played a key role in the campaign to unban the ANC, and its leadership was a key target of repression from the start.


With the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, the youth, both internally and externally began to work for the relaunch of the ANC Youth League. Sayco dissolved all its structures and its leaders joined members of the ANC Youth Section and other individuals who were seconded by Sansco, Cosas and YCS to form the ANC Youth League`s Provisional National Youth Committee - a committee charged with the task of re-establishing the Youth League.

The ANCYL was relaunched at its 17 Congress at the Kwandebele College in Siyabuswa in 1991, and set out to ensure the mobilisation of youth in support of the negotiations process and agitating for mass action in support of negotiations demands for an interim government, release of political prisoners and a Constituent Assembly.

The ANC Youth League today

Following the General Elections in 1994, the ANC Youth League has defined its twin tasks as continuing to mobilise young people behind the vision of the ANC, of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa on the one hand, and championing the interest of social and economic interests of young people. As a body of opinion within the ANC it provides organisational vibrancy and youthfull political debate imperative to a revolutionary organisation. It functions as an organisational and political preparatory school for young activists of the movement. It also acts as a bridge between different generations, and ensures that the movement remains relevant to new generations.