JOHANNESBURG — Against all odds, the party of Nelson Mandela has transformed a nation where just 20 years ago black South Africans could not vote, and beaches and restaurants were reserved for whites only.
The venerated party once banned for decades under apartheid has won every national election since racist white rule ended in 1994, and President Jacob Zuma vows the party “will rule until Jesus comes.”
Yet as the African National Congress marks its 100th anniversary this weekend with fanfare and dozens of visiting presidents, critics say the ANC has failed to unchain an impoverished majority still shackled by a white-dominated economy.
Unemployment hovers around 36 percent and soars to 70 percent among young people. Half of the country’s population lives on just 8 percent of the national income, according to the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
South African political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi praises the ANC for developmental achievements “unprecedented anywhere in the world” in its 17 years of governing the country.
But he noted that many at the ANC festivities will have their joy marred by “a tinge of disappointment and even sadness” about weaknesses and failures.
The ANC’s reputation is being tarnished by a never-ending deluge of corruption scandals, some involving politicians who sacrificed during the fight against apartheid and now feel entitled to luxury cars and financial payback.
It’s created disillusionment, especially for those who volunteered to serve as freedom fighters at a time when many of the ANC’s leaders were imprisoned for their activism.
Serame Mogale, who was only 14 when he became a guerrilla fighter for the ANC, recalled that the slogan in one Angolan training camp was “the pace of the slowest.”
“We would run six hours nonstop with female comrades in front, from whom the whole company or platoon will take the pace,” he recalls. “But today, the weakest is overtaken and left behind to tire and die.”
Africa’s oldest liberation movement is kicking off the festivities with a golf tournament — an event critics say shows how the grassroots-based movement has morphed into an elitist-run political party.
More than 100,000 people are expected for the ANC centenary festivities, including 46 heads of state and a dozen former presidents, the party says. Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu is coming, though it’s unclear whether Mandela will make an appearance.
The 93-year-old icon’s public appearances have become increasingly rare, though he did attend the closing ceremony of the World Cup in 2010. He also made a surprise appearance at a campaign rally ahead of the 2009 election, when the ANC faced unprecedented competition from a breakaway party.
“I would be nothing without the ANC,” Mandela said at a 2008 party rally marking his 90th birthday.
The political party representing South Africa’s impoverished majority already has drawn criticism for spending 10 million rand (nearly $1.5 million) of public money to buy the church where it all began.
The Wesleyan church is the focus of this weekend’s centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein, a city in the heart of the country. It was here that black activists and intellectuals founded the liberation movement that would help lead the decades-long struggle against racist rule.
Until just 20 years ago, blacks were evicted from their homes and herded into separate suburbs, forced to work under slave-like conditions on mines and farms. Families were separated under legalized race discrimination so that white entrepreneurs could take advantage of poorly paid black laborers.
The best parks, beaches and restaurants were reserved for the white minority, with signs in Afrikaans saying “Nie Blankies” — Whites Only. Some shops would only serve blacks through a hole in the wall.
Black nannies cared for white children and prepared elaborate meals for white families, then went to hovels in the backyards of mansions to feed their own children “ration meat” — bones and fat less nutritious than the meals served to white families’ dogs.
A turning point came in 1960, police turned their guns on about 300 people peacefully protesting “pass laws” restricting them to certain areas and requiring them to leave white areas where they worked by nightfall.
At least 69 people were killed and scores wounded in the Sharpeville massacre. The unprovoked slaughter attracted international condemnation that formed the roots of the global anti-apartheid movement.
The government declared a state of emergency and banned South Africa’s two liberation movements — the Pan Africanist Congress, which had organized the Sharpeville protest, and the ANC.
ANC leaders declared there was no longer any space to organize nonviolent resistance and formed Umkhonto we Sizwe, Zulu for “Spear of the Nation,” an army that would wage a guerrilla war for liberation.
“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit but we shall fight back by all our means within our power for the liberation of our motherland,” said the guerrilla army manifesto.
After Mandela’s 1990 release from prison, he was elected president of ANC and went on to become South Africa’s first black president after the historic 1994 election.
While the ANC confronted a common enemy in apartheid, it became a catchall for people of many different ideological persuasions. Once the enemy was defeated, it is not surprising that differences have arisen.
“We would like to think it (the ANC) has teething problems, but it’s not really only teething problems,” says Amina Cachalia, a political activist who joined the ANC in the 1940s. “I think suddenly it’s become a different platform for different ideologies and for different people with different agendas, and that’s a pity, a great pity.”
The party also has struggled to find a leader as charismatic as the beloved anti-apartheid icon.
Thabo Mbeki, the president who succeeded Mandela, was unceremoniously booted out of office by an ANC congress that deemed him too cerebral and out of touch with the people.
Today the ANC is led by Zuma, a guerrilla fighter who was imprisoned at Robben Island alongside Mandela but whose polygamous lifestyle and extramarital affairs have scandalized South Africans.
Zuma’s leadership is being challenged by Julius Malema, the very same fiery youth leader credited with ousting Mbeki and helping bring Zuma to power in 2007. Late last year, an ANC disciplinary committee fired Malema and suspended him from the party for five years.
Malema, who is awaiting the result of an appeal and is under police investigation for corruption and tax evasion, has been denied the opportunity to address the centenary celebrants. But he will speak at smaller rallies near Bloemfontein, the party said of the young firebrand who draws support from young adults.
Sifiso Mkwanazi, a 26-year-old self-employed businessman, complains about the government’s lack of investment to create jobs and better education opportunities.
“For the generation of my parents, I think it (the ANC) has done a lot, but with our generation, I don’t think they are contributing as much as they should be,” he says.
Still, he said his vote would go to the ANC unless a viable opposition party devoted to the people’s interest springs up.
Cachalia, who has been a friend of Mandela for 60 years, says she wonders what he would make of the ANC’s evolution.
“I sometimes feel very disillusioned these days, but I suppose we live in hope,” she says.