‘The hour of youth has struck!’: Anton Lembede and The Formation of the ANC Youth League

Today Anton Lembede would have celebrated his 70th birthday this year, had he not died so young at 33. We honour this founding member and first president of the ANC Youth League in the #LongMarchToFreedom. Visit him and other Young Lions, #Tambo, #Mandela and #Sisulu at #FountainsValley, Pretoria.

‘The hour of youth has struck!.’ So proclaimed a flyer issued by the Provisional Executive Committee of the newly formed ANC Youth League, advertising the organisation’s first conference to be held in September 1944.

The Youth League had launched six months earlier, at Johannesburg’s Bantu Social Centre in March 1944 but it was at the September conference that Anton Lembede was elected from among his equally dynamic peers to become first president of the ANC’s youth wing.

Outstanding because of his intellect, qualifications and passion, the dynamic leader invented and was greatly driven by the ideal ‘Africanism.’ He had a deep and almost fanatical love for Africa and would, on occasion remark that, ‘I live for the freedom of my people, and I shall die for Africa’s freedom’. It is no surprise that the motto of the Youth League was ‘Africa’s’ cause must triumph!’

According to Lembede’s close friend and housemate Ashby P. Mda, the first person to mention or suggest the founding of a Youth League was actually Manasseh T. Moerane. However, Moerane was not to take a leading role in the formation of the League and subsequently has not been noted in popular histories of the ANCYL.

Both founding members, Lembede and Mda had become close friends in 1943 and had to share accommodation as a result of their low wages. Their time together was spent engaging in intellectual discussions which gave birth to the ideals that were to shape the organisation and future generations to this day.

Mda acknowledged that Lembede ‘took his word in many things’ and was very respectful and loving toward him. He never wanted to clash openly with him, but in private they had intense arguments. He would attack others publicly but was to Mda ‘as soft as a newly wedded maiden’. This gave others the impression that Mda was steering Lembede from behind the scenes, but in fact they clashed in privately on many issues of principle.

Bronze statue of Anton Lembede at Fountains Valley Resort in Pretoria

In the 1930s the ANC, under the leadership of Alfred Bitini Xuma, had been revived but its methods remained cautious and respectful towards the white elite. Every resolution of the ANC started with statements like, ‘We pray the Minister… We humbly request…’  Annoyed by this pacifism, this group of young intellectuals became agitated and demanded a shift towards a more militant style of politics. Jordan Ngubane, a youth leader regarded as a philosopher, together with Lembede and Mda drafted the League Manifesto, although Lembedes’ ideas are said to have dominated the document.

 Although Xuma was worried that the manifesto was disrespectful as it was scathingly critical of the senior ANC, he still gave the youth support. The document pointed out that the formation of the Youth League was based on criticisms against the ANC which was seen as elitist and ‘not an efficiently organised bloc’, lacking a ‘constructive programme to enforce the repeal of all oppressive legislation’. The Youth League aimed at imparting to the ANC a national character rooted in African nationalism and African self-determination.

Many older ANC leaders dismissed the League as irresponsible and cheeky, partly because Lembede was extremely passionate and dogmatic about his beliefs. However, his influence was shown when the moderate Xuma lost the presidency in 1949 to James Moroka who was more supportive of the Programme of Action presented by Lembede in the same year.

Sadly, Lembede died prematurely on the 30th of July 1947 at the age of 33. Mda took over leadership and formed a working committee consisting of Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. These, as history has shown went on to further prove that indeed the hour of youth had struck.

References

Glaser Clive. The ANC Youth League. Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2012.

Karis Thomas and G.M Carter. From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1964. Vol 2. California: Hoover Institution Press, 1979.

Statement during the Anton Lembede Memorial Lecture at the University of Fort Hare. 10 October 2002. http://www.ancyl.org.za/search.php?search=Anton+Lembede+&submit=search&sa=

Gerhart, Gail M. Interview with Mda, A.P. 01 January 1970. http://www.aluka.org/action/showMetadata?doi=10.5555/AL.SFF.DOCUMENT.gerhart0016