The African National Congress Turns 100


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.

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.


From Peaceful Protests to Armed Struggle

Meanwhile, beyond the courtroom, the struggle continued with demonstrations against the laws that required blacks to carry identity passes when traveling outside their segregated areas. Two protests in particular stand out. One was when more than 2,000 women, including Winnie Mandela (now the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela), marched on the seat of government in Pretoria, proclaiming, "When you touch the women, you've struck a rock. You will be crushed!" But before the regime could be crushed, the women were arrested, and a pregnant Winnie almost lost her baby. 


The second of those demonstrations, in Sharpeville in 1961, led to the deaths of 69 protesters, who were shot by police. And as South African writer Max du Preez recalled in his book The Rough Guide to Nelson Mandela, it was "a defining moment in South African history," demonstrating to the world "that apartheid was a violent and racist policy, and dispelled all notions of it being a morally justifiable strategy of 'separate development' of races."

Yet the government declared a state of emergency and banned all protest movements, including the ANC, which resulted in most of the organization's leaders going underground or into exile.


It was then — in mid-1961— that Mandela persuaded the ANC of the efficacy of armed struggle, arguing, "If peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end."

Once again, the ANC was torn by division over this approach. But in the end, most signed on and Mandela went underground, darting from place to place, earning the nickname "the Black Pimpernel." During that time, he also traveled around the continent, drumming up support for the cause, though the commencement of armed struggle cost him much support in the West.


The ANC in Exile

Thousands of young South Africans — mostly black, but including whites, Indians and coloreds — followed Mandela underground, and over the next few years they launched sporadic attacks inside the country. But on Aug. 5, 1962, Mandela, dressed as a chauffeur, was caught and arrested. He was later tried and sentenced to life in prison, and the ANC would not be the same for the next 27 years.


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.

Even some of the ANC's own members are worried that the organization may have "lost the plot," as one 49-year-old prominent black South African exasperatedly exclaimed to me recently. And the ANC's solid majority is not as solid as it once was, though opposition parties have yet to make major inroads into its constituency.


Pallo Jordan, a member of the National Executive Committee — the ANC's highest organ — recently acknowledged in South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper that "personal ambition and careerism inspire the actions of many among the ANC today." And, further, that "some even have recourse to ethnic mobilization." He went on to write:

The movement's reluctance to undertake serious study of the outcomes of freedom has rendered it less capable of anticipating potential points of tension and conflict. As a result, it finds it difficult to manage the contradictions produced by its own policies.


He concluded with these words: "The ANC's capacity to lead will depend on how it addresses the societal changes its own policies have generated."

A Young Government's Growing Pains

Many of the social ills confronting the ANC today stem from generations of policies by the minority white regime that were aimed at keeping the black majority in its place — subservient and dependent. The ANC-led government continues to insist that it is taking steps to change all that, and this past year it announced a series of accords to promote economic growth and job creation — critical in a country where the official unemployment rate is over 25 percent and in some communities as high as 80.


But the government is still found wanting, not only in job creation but in just about every sector — from housing to health to education. The hope that the ANC generated with its resounding victory is also being tarnished by the almost daily reports of nepotism and corruption and, most important, the failure to project a clear vision for the country that the still-underserved and increasingly disaffected can embrace. And many youths are taking to the streets, as an earlier generation once did to protest the effects of apartheid. 

Many of them are following a fiery young ANC leader, Julius Malema, who once said that he would kill for President Jacob Zuma but who has now turned on him. Malema is leading his loyalists in mocking the president by getting them to hold their hands over their heads in a gesture that suggests a showerhead — a reference to the defense that the president gave at his rape trial when he acknowledged that he had had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman but had protected himself by taking a shower afterward.


He was acquitted of the charges, but the shower image lingers. The idea that Malema is backed by forces that want to remove Zuma as they once removed Mbeki is gaining traction in public discourse.

And although Malema has been suspended from the ANC for other actions that the organization says brought it into disrepute, such as taking positions at odds with the mother body — promoting nationalization of the banks and mines, supporting Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and singing an outlawed struggle song, Kill the Boer — he still commands attention and a following.


Constitutional Crisis

Two other major issues stirring controversy are the so-called secrecy bill, about which I have written on The Root before — which would effectively put a lid on any information the government deems a threat to national security and carries heavy jail sentences for anyone revealing such state secrets or being in possession thereof, and failing to turn them over to the proper authorities.


Another major contentious issue involves recent perceived attacks on the South African Constitution, hailed up to now as one of the most liberal in the world. But Ngoako Ramathlodi, a top ANC official and deputy minister of correctional services, recently argued that the constitution achieved "the objective of protecting white economic interests." He further asserted that "the black majority enjoys empty political power while forces against change reign supreme in the economy, judiciary, public opinion and civil society." While he was by no means speaking for the ANC, that a senior member of the organization would so characterize the constitution is seen by many as cause for worry.

And so, back to the celebration of the ANC's 100th anniversary. Whatever issues now confront it, and however they get resolved, on Jan. 8, even critics say, a celebration is indeed appropriate because, as one disaffected ANC member told me, "The ANC and its history belong to us, the people of South Africa."


Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based writer and journalist and frequent contributor to The Root.