The African National Congress Turns 100
South Africa's ruling party has much to fete and more to consider, says Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
But still the struggle continued, and eventually the young people of the country reignited the fire that Mandela and his ANC colleagues like Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo had started. After a five-month protest against the government's attempted imposition of Afrikaans (a Dutch-derived language) as the language of instruction in all schools, teenagers in the sprawling black township of Soweto sparked a campaign that would become a turning point in the struggle.
"After Soweto," the ANC's Pallo Jordan recently wrote, "we never looked back."
When I visited the country for the first time in 1985, the ANC was still banned, in exile, its existence often depending on the kindness of sympathetic strangers. Based in Lusaka, Zambia, it was also struggling for primacy inside the country from outside the country, while those inside the country, commonly referred to as "inziles" (to distinguish them from the exiles), carried on the struggle.
From Lusaka, the ANC'S Thabo Mbeki (who later became South Africa's second postapartheid president) beamed over short-wave radio appeals to the inziles to "make the country ungovernable." But the regime reacted with unprecedented barbarity, unleashing death squads that killed with impunity and unleashed dirty tricks by the military. Thousands were arrested and tortured. Many simply "disappeared."
Mandela's Freedom and Beyond
By 1990 the ANC's activities around the world had helped bring about international sanctions that were putting major economic pressure on the regime. And Mandela himself had unilaterally begun talks with the white leadership that were aimed at peaceful regime change. But he eventually managed to get word of his efforts to Tambo and those in exile.
And when South African President F.W. de Klerk announced the release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC, that organization, though caught off guard, regained its footing. The exiles returned, and in 1994, after often contentious negotiations with the regime, the ANC took power in a landslide election that saw it capture 63 percent of the vote in the first all-race election, making Mandela president.
Since then the ANC has been engaged in transforming itself, often fitfully, from a liberation movement into a governing party. So far it has avoided the fate of many other liberation movements that failed to make the leap, those movements descending instead into authoritarian rule, with policies and practices no different from those of their former oppressors.
The ANC has asked its constituents to be patient while it works through attending to the myriad problems that the predominantly black masses face. It's still early in the life of this young democracy, and it could be argued that the new South Africa has fared no better or worse than other democracies in their first 18 years of existence. However, the patience of many South Africans who have not received the benefits that their new democratic leaders promised is beginning to wear thin.