BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa (AP) — Tens of thousands of chanting and dancing revelers waved the green and gold colors of the African National Congress as Africa’s oldest liberation movement celebrated its 100th anniversary Sunday, though many South Africans say the party hasn’t delivered on its promises since taking power in 1994.
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A dozen African leaders and more former heads of state along with African kings and chieftains attended a midnight ceremony where President Jacob Zuma lit a flame, expected to stay alight the entire year, at the red brick, tin-roofed Wesleyan church where black intellectuals and activists founded the party in 1912.
Absent because of his frailty was Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president who is just six years younger than his movement. The world icon was jailed for 27 years by the racist white government and his organization was formerly declared a terrorist group by the United States.
Joy at the ANC’s leading role in ending white minority rule in 1994 was tinged with sadness over the its failure to bring a better life to most South Africans, and corruption scandals that have embroiled its members in recent years.
“It means a lot to be alive when the ANC is celebrating 100 years of its existence,” Mayor Tulani Sebego of Bergville told Associated Press Television News.
He said the party had gained strength along with challenges, “but it has managed to come through it to today, it is here, 100 years and I want to believe it will reach 200 years.”
The stadium at Bloemfontein, upgraded to a 45,000-seater for the 2010 soccer World Cup, overflowed Sunday with crowds that spilled outside, dancing and singing under a blazing sun.
Dozens of buses lined up to drop off celebrants waiting for an afternoon address by Zuma.
Zuma has said the ANC will rule “until Jesus comes” but the next few years will be critical ones for the party that has won a landslide victory in every election for the last 18 years.
The ANC describes itself as the home of the working class and the poor, but inequality has grown in recent years even as a small black elite around the party has become multimillionaires flaunting lavish lifestyles.
Unemployment hovers around 36 percent and soars to 70 percent among young people. Half the country’s population lives on just 8 percent of the national income, according to the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
A warning sign came from the town of Clarens, where stone-throwing protesters smashed the windows of a bus that was to transport supporters to the centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein, 260 kilometers (160 miles) away.
Protesters, demanding ANC municipal leaders be fired for failing to deliver basic services like tap water, stoned vehicles and blocked the road to Bloemfontein, Talk Radio 702 reported.
Such protests have become daily events across the country, where political liberation has not been matched by economic emancipation as Africa’s largest economy remains in the control of the white minority.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in fighting apartheid and is attending the celebrations, recently called for a tax on all whites who benefited from apartheid.
“Apartheid is not over,” American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said after the church ceremony, “the agricultural apartheid, the manufacturing apartheid, the banking apartheid, the shipping apartheid, the layers beneath the skin color are now the next century’s challenge.”
Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, whose country was bombed by South African warplanes attacking ANC guerrilla training camps during the struggle for liberation, issued a warning at a banquet Saturday night.
“Comrade Zuma, you have more serious problems than any of us. You are faced with the land question. I want to remind the South African youth that two wrongs can never make a right,” he said.
The ANC government has admitted its failure to return white-owned farmland to blacks – a key issue of the liberation struggle. In 1994 it set a goal of redistributing 30 percent of agricultural land to blacks by 2014 – targeting a total of nearly 61 million acres (24.6 million hectares). Instead, it has bought only about 6 million hectares, of which a third has been resold by aspiring black farmers who failed to get enough support.
Ninety percent of farmland here remains in white hands. Hundreds of white farmers have been killed over the years, and they in turn are accused of brutality and killings of black farm laborers.
Whites are not the only ones tied up in land disputes. Mandela’s grandson, Mandla, who attended the celebration, faces allegations of land-grabbing by families in Mvezo, the village where Mandela was born. A court will hear the case later this month. Villagers charge Mandla Mandela, a traditional chief, of illegally expropriating their land and removing grave sites to build a multimillion-dollar hotel and stadium.
Another ANC leader embroiled in controversy, Youth League leader Julius Malema, told a weekend rally around the celebrations that he hopes within 10 years blacks will control the mines and farms and whites will be their domestic workers and farm laborers.
Malema has denied newspaper reports that he called ANC leaders “baboons” in a brazen attack at another weekend rally. Malema reportedly said ANC leaders were living “the high life” while most South Africans struggle to survive on breadcrumbs. Malema himself has been criticized for building a $2 million mansion, with people asking where the money comes from.
As he spoke at the rally, people in the crowd made the football substitution sign – indicating their desire for a change of leadership, the Sunday Tribune reported. Malema used the Youth League’s power to help oust former President Thabo Mbeki, opening the way for Zuma to replace him in 2009, but now wants to see someone else lead the party.
That fight will be fought at the ANC congress in December in Bloemfontein, a city in the heart of the country that also is called Mangaung.
In a sign of possible reconciliation, Mbeki is attending the three-day bash in Bloemfontein, the first major ANC meeting he has been seen at since his fall from grace amid accusations he was high-handed, too cerebral and removed from ordinary South Africans.