Centenary party

Published : Feb 10, 2012 00:00 IST

SOUTH AFRICAN PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma greets the crowds that gathered for the ANC's centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein on January 8. Against all odds, the party of Nelson Mandela has transformed a nation where, just 20 years ago, the black people could not vote, and beaches and restaurants were reserved for whites only.-JEROME DELAY/AP

SOUTH AFRICAN PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma greets the crowds that gathered for the ANC's centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein on January 8. Against all odds, the party of Nelson Mandela has transformed a nation where, just 20 years ago, the black people could not vote, and beaches and restaurants were reserved for whites only.-JEROME DELAY/AP

The African National Congress, the party that liberated South Africa from apartheid rule, celebrates its 100th anniversary.

ON January 8, the top leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), along with many African heads of state and dignitaries from all over the world, gathered in Bloemfontein town to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the anti-apartheid movement. The festivities started with the sacrifice of a black bull, a traditional Zulu custom to ward off evil spirits, also considered a mark of respect for the souls of departed ancestors.

More than $12 million was spent on the celebrations. Famous musicians and artistes were invited from all over the world to entertain the huge crowds that were bussed in from various parts of the country. There was even a celebrity golf tournament to mark the occasion. The ostentatious style of the centenary celebrations drew some criticism.

The ANC has been ruling South Africa since 1994, presiding over Africa's biggest economy, which is often described as the engine that powers the continent. Though the ANC has not been successful in bridging the yawning gap between the rich and the poor, the party has succeeded in building a multiracial society. It runs the government in alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). The alliance is committed to ushering in a national democratic revolution that is expected to benefit a broad cross section of the South African population.

Successive elections since 1994 have shown that the vast majority still reposes faith in the iconic party that liberated South Africa from apartheid rule. Though cracks have started appearing in the party, the overriding theme at the celebrations was Unity in Diversity and the party's Selfless Struggle for independence. The ANC has produced great leaders such as Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. Mandela, now in his nineties and ailing, did not attend the celebrations.

President Jacob Zuma, in a long speech, said the celebrations were for all the people of South Africa who, with the support of the continent and the world, destroyed colonial oppression and apartheid and are building a free, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa together. He stressed that South Africa belonged to all those who lived in it. Zuma used the occasion to reiterate that the ANC was a disciplined force of the Left with a bias towards the poor.

The ANC has traversed a long and difficult path in the past 100 years. It was formed after the end of the Boer War, which was fought between the white Afrikaners and the British colonialists. The unilateral British decision to create a Union of South Africa in 1910 infuriated the majority non-white population consisting of blacks, coloureds (mixed race) and Indians. They were excluded from the power-sharing arrangement arrived at between the British and the Afrikaners.

The ANC was formed two years later in 1912. Soon after its creation, the racist South African government came up with the repressive Masters and Servants Act and the Native Poll Tax. The Land Act, passed in 1913, reserved 90 per cent of the country for the minority white population.

Soon after its formation, the ANC acquired a reputation for militancy. Its radicalisation derived, to a certain extent, from the October Revolution in Russia. In 1918, more than a million black mine workers went on strike. The ANC identified itself with the broader struggle being waged against colonialism and imperialism in the African continent and beyond. However, white supremacist rule had further consolidated itself. By the 1930s, all the towns and cities in the country had become almost totally segregated on the basis of race. The ANC, while continuing its struggle, did not make much of an impact on the country's politics.

It was the formation of the youth wing of the ANC in April 1944 that galvanised the liberation movement. Among those who came into prominence in the youth wing were the future leaders of the ANC, including Mandela, Sisulu and Tambo. The young leaders resolved to turn the ANC into a more combative party by involving the mass of the people in the struggle against white minority rule. In 1949, the Youth League announced a programme of action that included strikes and boycotts.

The ANC, in cooperation with other democratic movements like the South African Indian Congress, presented a list of demands to the government in 1950. Freedom from colonial rule for countries like India had galvanised the ANC's rank and file. The party demanded self-government and land rights to all. In 1955, the ANC came out with the landmark Freedom Charter, which declared that South Africa belonged to all those who lived on its soil. The apartheid rulers responded by banning the ANC, saying that the demands were inspired by communist ideology. The South African government had already imposed a ban on the SACP.

The Sharpeville massacre of 1960, in which the police opened fire on unarmed protesters, triggered an armed struggle. Sixty-nine people were killed and 186 injured in the incident. The ANC decided that peaceful protests alone would not be effective. It went underground and formed a guerilla army Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Its mandate was to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and freedom. More state repression followed. Most of the ANC's top leaders were arrested and incarcerated in the notorious Robben Island Prison and in other jails. Many more massacres took place under the apartheid regime. Thousands of people lost their lives in the late 1970s and the 1980s in the long struggle to end apartheid.

It was only after the decolonisation struggle in southern Africa intensified that the ANC's military wing could start making a real impact inside the country. The left-wing guerilla movements that defeated the Western-backed groups in Angola and Mozambique after the departure of the Portuguese colonial rulers provided a sanctuary to ANC fighters. So did the governments of neighbouring Zimbabwe and Zambia. Crucial to South Africa's eventual freedom was the 1988 battle of Cueto Cuinavale, where a joint force of Cuban and Angolan troops defeated the South African army, which was the strongest army in the continent and had never before tasted defeat.

That historic defeat led to the independence of Namibia. The international spotlight after that was firmly on the apartheid regime in South Africa. With the release of Mandela in early 1990, it became clear that the days of white minority rule were numbered. But unlike in neighbouring Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola, it was not guerilla warfare that forced the transfer of power. The white elite in South Africa preferred a negotiated settlement wherein their core interests would be protected.

President Nelson Mandela remained hugely popular during his single term in office. The white elite, which controlled the commanding heights of the economy, remained largely untouched. In a famous speech in 1956, Mandela had assured the white minority that its privileges would be protected in a multiracial South Africa under ANC rule. South Africa continued to remain a country where the First World and the Third World coexisted precariously. The emphasis was on free-market reforms prescribed by international financial institutions. Many ANC activists, such as Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwalle, transformed themselves into successful businessmen and became multimillionaires. Today 70 per cent of the population of South Africa lives below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is said to hover around 40 per cent.

President Zuma is having a rocky term, plagued by allegations of nepotism and corruption. Before coming to power, he was implicated in a scam pertaining to a controversial 1999 arms deal. This scandal is refusing to die despite the government's best efforts to close the file. Late last year, the president of the ANC's influential youth wing, Julius Malema, was suspended from the party for five years for bringing disrepute, sowing divisions and undermining the presidency. Malema had played a key role in getting Zuma the presidency five years ago.

Malema courted controversy with his radical views and openly voiced his opposition to a second term for the President. He has also been calling for the nationalisation of the country's lucrative mining sector and for speedier land reforms. Much of the productive land still is in the hands of white farmers. The controversial land reforms carried out in neighbouring Zimbabwe, which have come in for a lot of criticism in the West, have been praised by many in the ANC Youth League. Like their counterparts in Zimbabwe, they point out that they, too, fought to liberate their land from foreign ownership.

The secretary general of COSATU, Zwelinzima Vavi, recently said that South Africa was slipping into a predatory state' where a new tier of leaders believed that it was their turn to feed. In late 2010, the country was wracked by serious labour strife. Public sector workers struck work for more than three weeks demanding a raise in salaries and better working conditions. Zuma, before becoming President, had positioned himself as a populist who would listen to workers and the grass-roots supporters of the ANC and reverse some of the unpopular policies. His predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, had continued with the neoliberal economic agenda that the government had inherited from the white rulers.

The trade unions too had played a big role in putting Zuma at the helm. However, after he took over, he did not bother to implement most of the decisions the ANC had made before the 2008 elections. The party had promised to introduce a national health insurance scheme and institute wide-ranging rural reforms. Zwelinzima Vavi has been making veiled threats of breaking away from the three-party alliance if the government continues to pander to a predatory elite within the ANC. If this happens, the entire electoral arithmetic could change. The ANC will no longer be able to take victory in the elections for granted.

On the foreign policy front, too, the ANC leadership has been attracting criticism. Many on the African continent were surprised by the South African government's support for the United Nations Security Council resolution that supported the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya and paved the way for foreign intervention and regime change in Libya. It should not be forgotten that Libya under Muammar Qaddafi was among the biggest financiers of the ANC during its long struggle against apartheid.

When Mandela was President, South Africa refused to join the other states in the region when they intervened militarily in the Congo to prevent a regime change there. South Africa prefers to identify itself with countries like India and Brazil in the arena of international politics.

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