News / Africa

At 100, South Africa’s ANC Still Facing Hurdles

Delia Robertson

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, the ANC, celebrates the centennial of its founding at Mangaung in the Free State province this weekend. The lavish festivities launch a yearlong celebration expected to cost $12.5 million.

The ANC was founded on January 8th, 1912, in the Wesleyan Church in Bloemfontein -- now Mangaung -- by a group of tribal chiefs and representatives of church and civil-society groups who were determined to build an organization that would fight for the rights of blacks. These rights included land rights, freedom of movement and employment, which were denied to black South Africans under the laws of the British colonial government in power at the time.

One-hundred years later, President Jacob Zuma will lead the anniversary celebrations at the same (recently refurbished) little church in the presence of the political elite and foreign guests.

"We will have the president making a centenary statement about what it is that we have achieved, and what were the pains of the past 100 years, what were the glories and what it is that we are looking forward to in the next century," says ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu of Zuma’s address.

Steven Friedman, head of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, says the most important of Zuma’s ANC “glories” will surely be easily to anticipate.

"Well, obviously the greatest achievement of the ANC is that apartheid has ended," he says. "It was committed to achieving full citizen rights for black people in South Africa and that was achieved in 1994. And surely that achievement dwarfs anything else that the ANC may have done during that period."

In many ways, the history of the ANC over the past century has mirrored that of the country as a whole. The organization began almost as a gentlemen’s club, with much debate, deliberation and, at times, discord, before launching the so-called Defiance Campaign in the 1950s. Groups of volunteers would actively court arrest by publicly defying restrictive laws, such as burning the hated “dompas” -- a permit which stipulated where the holder was permitted to live and work.

By 1961 an emerging leadership -- which included Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu -- argued that passive resistance had failed. They convinced a majority in the ANC to adopt a policy of armed struggle and the military party's wing, Mkhonto we Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation” was formed. After hundreds of acts of sabotage, such as the blowing up of electricity towers, Mandela and the entire ANC leadership were jailed or fled into exile.

By the late 1980s, the ANC would undergo another shift. In the same way that he had risked his credibility within the ANC by urging armed struggle in the 1960s, Mandela began to move the party -- without its members' initial knowledge or consent -- toward a negotiated settlement with the apartheid state's rulers. He reached out to two former presidents, first the irascible P.W. Botha, known as the "Groot Krokodil" or "Great Crocodile," and to F.W. de Klerk, with whom he would share the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. The talks led to a political transition to full democracy.

The period following the first democratic election in 1994, which ended apartheid and saw Mandela become South Africa’s first black president, was marked by a euphoric coming together of both the country and the disparate elements that make up the broad church that is the ANC.

But it would not last. By 2000 the country and the ANC were struggled to cohere as old racial and factional cracks were opening anew. Friedman says disputes within the ANC affect the entire country because it is now the party in power.

"What used to be arguments about strategy to defeat apartheid is now competition for power, and competition for perks," he says. "Because obviously if you get into office you also have certain material benefits which flow from that. So it has become a much more intense contest because there is more at stake for the people it involves. And the ANC’s problem is that it hasn’t really found a set of rules and a [way] of going about its business which enable it to deal with this particular form of conflict."

That conflict is at present being publicly played out in the contest of will and power between President Zuma and Julius Malema, the often controversial leader of the ANC Youth League. Despite calls for a united front during the celebrations, Malema made it clear at a public rally on Thursday that the contest will soon resume.

"Once [the international visitors] are gone, then we go back to our issues," said Malema. "We must never forget our issues. And when we deal with those issues, we must never apologize, you must never be scared, you must never be governed by fear. You must fight like there is no tomorrow to what you believe in. And our discipline in Mangaung must never be confused with defeat."

Friedman says that, in the immediate future, the ANC needs to find a way to manage from within.

"The immediate problem is how to manage competition within the ANC so that it becomes a healthy competition for posts rather, than a damaging competition in which the winners always try to get the losers expelled and the losers always claim that the winners cheated," he says.

As the party in power, the ANC has failed to deliver on many of its promises made over the years for a "better life for all." South Africa has become one of the most unequal countries in the world, with an enormous gap between rich and poor.

Friedman says this is in part because the ANC has lost touch with its constituency and needs to remedy the situation.

"The other urgent task that the ANC has is that it really needs to reconnect with its voters, or to connect with its voters because it is not entirely sure that it was ever connected with its voters," he says. "I think there is a great deal of concern among ANC voters who feel that the politicians are not taking them seriously, that the politicians are concerned about themselves and not about the people who elected them."

The ANC has dominated political power since 1994 and still commands more than 60 percent of the vote in elections. Analysts say it would take a split in the ANC before that lead was trimmed in any significant way. They also suggest the split is likely to come between the left and centrist groups in the party.

Friedman disagrees. He says the split is most likely to come between those who see the ANC as vehicle to personal enrichment and those who don’t. He argues that the split could come after the ANC national conference in 2017, still five years away.

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