The African National Congress Turns 100

South Africa's ruling party has much to fete and more to consider, says Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

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On Jan. 8 the oldest liberation movement on the African continent, the African National Congress, commences a yearlong commemoration of its centenary -- which, by the way, is just three years after the NAACP's 100th, whose goals and objectives were the same: freedom, justice and equality for all.

The kickoff will be in the town of Bloemfontein, where the ANC was founded, and is expected to be attended by more than 120,000 people, including foreign heads of state and other dignitaries. The celebration will be taking place as the ANC, which is also South Africa's ruling party, is beset with infighting and intrigues, including debates over the leadership at the top of the "broad church" (the description attached to the ANC's Tripartite Alliance with the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions) -- a coalition whose membership, though predominantly black, is racially diverse, economically varied and both rural and urban in makeup.

Presumably, but not certainly, the voices of dissent will put their issues on hold as the ANC's leaders recall a history of protest that has its roots in a proud struggle tradition dating back to the 1600s, when countless warriors with names like Cetshwayo, Sekhukhune and Sandile stood up to white settlers with expansionary aims -- the Boers and the British -- who insisted over time that South Africa was a "white man's land." The earlier freedom fighters initially welcomed the whites, as the Native Americans did the Pilgrims, but when the whites trampled on the native South Africans' hospitality, they went into battle with their traditional weapon, the assegai, or spear. Superior firepower ultimately vanquished them, but not their aspirations.

Uneasy Early Compromises

Thus, in 1912, a new movement was born, with new warriors drawn from the tiny but highly educated urban black middle class, with names like Pixley ka Isaka Seme, John Dube and Sol Plaatje. And while their aim was the same as that of the earlier warriors who had fought with spears, the ANC's early leaders initially chose to fight with reason and negotiation -- even, for a time, accepting white minority rule.

But it was always an uncomfortable compromise, not least because of the increasingly repressive white government, which, in 1948, legalized Afrikaner nationalism and the notion of white superiority, aka apartheid. The whites-only government created strict racial classifications and divided its population into four categories: white, colored, Indian and black, in that pecking order. It also created separate living enclaves for each, forcibly removing millions of people from their homes into barren places with few basic amenities, like toilets that flushed.

Meanwhile, the oppressed black population became increasingly restive, and for a time, the young militants with the ANC, including a fiery young lawyer named Nelson Mandela, embraced African nationalism. They rejected interaction with other races and what those like Mandela called "foreign ideologies," especially communism. South Africa, they insisted, was "a black man's country." It wasn't the first time the ANC experienced intense internal divisions; nor would it be the last -- including the ANC's decision in 1961 to create an armed guerrilla force, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), or Spear of the Nation.

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But in 1955 the African nationalists, including Mandela, met in an interracial assembly just outside Johannesburg and created a document they called the Freedom Charter, which stated that "South Africa belongs to all who lived in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people." And that manifesto has remained the guiding principle of the ANC.

But at the time, the white regime labeled the document "communist," and that provided the excuse in early December 1957 to detain Mandela and more than 150 others, charging them with treason, a crime then punishable by death. The case was not settled until March 29, 1961, when Mandela and his so-called co-conspirators were found not guilty, with the judge remarkably stating that the ANC was neither violent nor criminal.