As the apartheid liberation movement marks its centenary, can South Africa's ruling party stay united?
South African President Jacob Zuma will be joined by foreign heads of state where it all began: a Wesleyan church in Waaihoek, Bloemfontein. At the stroke of midnight, he will step forward to light the “centenary flame” symbolising the resistance that gave hope to all of Africa.
The African National Congress, the oldest liberation movement on the continent, turns 100 years old on January 8. A year of celebrations costing at least 100 million rand (£7.9 million) will kick off with a “centenary golf day,” a dinner, a church service, a centennial address by Mr. Zuma, a performance of the ANC's history in song and dance and a shindig for 100,000 people.
Under the black, green and gold banner reading “100 years of selfless struggle,” there will be much lionising of heroes such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. But in some quarters there will also be nostalgia for old certainties, a suspicion that today's leaders do not measure up to the titans of old, and a fear that South Africa's governing party enters its second century tarnished and poised to tear itself apart.
“One hundred years should be the ANC's biggest celebration, to have survived this long and be in government, but it's now a party in crisis,” said William Gumede, author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC. “It's a bittersweet victory. This may be the pinnacle but now it's all downhill.” Symbolically perhaps, the ANC has been forced to covertly buy its own birthplace at a hugely inflated price so it can take centre stage in the commemorations. In July, it spent 10 million rand of public funds to regain the Wesleyan church in Waaihoek from a man who acquired it for just 280,000 rand eight years ago, according to South Africa's Mail & Guardian. There is now a race to complete costly renovations before the centenary flame is lit.
The church stands in what used to be an African township in Bloemfontein in Free State province. It was here in 1912, that businessmen, clergymen, journalists, lawyers and teachers held a political meeting that laid the foundations of the South African Native National Congress, renamed the ANC in 1923.
The party's cause came from unlikely DNA in the shape of Britain, and Mahatma Gandhi. The latter arrived in South Africa in 1893 and blazed a trail with resistance campaigns against colonial rule. “This was the progenitor in a sense of the ANC,” said Allister Sparks, a veteran journalist and political analyst.
Britain had angered African activists and intellectuals by handing power to Afrikaners (descended from Dutch and German settlers) when the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910. “It was the betrayal of black people,” Mr. Sparks added. “This is the only instance when Britain granted independence to a minority group, because it was stricken with guilt about the Boer war.
“If one is looking for an original sin in the South African story, it was that. The granting of independence to the white minority created a problem that led to apartheid.” The 1913 Natives Land Act carved up territory along racial lines, in effect giving 90 per cent of land to white people. The ANC's first political action was to petition Britain to intervene but in vain. In 1914, Afrikaner nationalists founded the National party, also in Bloemfontein. It introduced racial apartheid (meaning “apartness” in Afrikaans) in 1948.
The ANC was banned in 1960 and began an armed struggle, carrying out 200 acts of sabotage in 18 months. The apartheid regime hit back, arresting and jailing key figures including Mr. Mandela, who would spend 27 years behind bars. Other leaders, notably Mr. Tambo, went into exile and campaigned tirelessly for international support.
The corrosive effect of sanctions, and township unrest were among pressures that brought the edifice crashing down. In 1990, the ANC was unbanned and Mr. Mandela released. The first democratic polls followed in 1994, with Mr. Mandela becoming the country's first African-origin President.
But critics believe the ANC is trading on past glories. Like its counterparts elsewhere in Africa, it has found it could liberate in poetry but must govern in prose, with the glue that held it together fast disappearing.
Corruption creeps in
Moeletsi Mbeki, a political economist whose brother Thabo succeeded Mr. Mandela as President from 1999 to 2008, said: “A liberation movement has one project, which was to get rid of apartheid. Everybody could agree on that.” Crime and HIV rates soared but, once in office, some veterans seemed determined to line their pockets and demonstrate the timeless truth that power corrupts. The biggest stain was a 1990s international arms deal costing an estimated 70 billion rand of taxpayers' money. Official inquiries continue into allegations that bribes worth more than two billion rand were paid to individuals and the ANC itself.
Andrew Feinstein, an ANC MP, resigned after the party asked him to collude in a cover-up. “There's a strong sense that Parliament has never recovered, that this was the moment at which Parliament became nothing more than a rubber stamp for the ruling party.”
Along with charges of cronyism and patronage, the ANC is fractured by internecine warfare. The party's broad church of members, a strength during the struggle years, has become unwieldy, a weakness in trying to run one of the world's most unequal societies. There are battles between left and right, between African nationalists and pro-Western liberals, between big egos vying for power and the riches it brings. One of Mr. Mbeki's favourite literary quotations is recycled endlessly: “The centre cannot hold.” Poison in the bloodstream was evident when the autocratic Mr. Mbeki was ousted after an unseemly power struggle. Now Mr. Zuma, seeking re-election at the end of the centenary year, is facing an insurgency from youth leader Julius Malema. But party stalwarts play down talk of imminent implosion, noting the ANC has weathered previous internal storms.
Recent election results, however, suggest a gradual erosion of the support that the ANC once took for granted.
The patience of voters who still lack electricity, water and other basic services is wearing thin. A growing educated middle class is losing touch with apartheid history and seeking alternatives. Some commentators predict that the party could lose its parliamentary majority within a decade.
And with the trauma of public rejection would come the greatest test of all: to avoid the example of revolutionaries such as Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe with their assumed divine right to rule.
The party born in a township church in 1912 is at a crossroads, looking back on a proud heritage beyond praise, but contemplating an uncertain and perilous future. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012