Magazine article Contemporary Review

South Africa: The ANC at 100

Magazine article Contemporary Review

South Africa: The ANC at 100

Article excerpt

ON January 8, 1912, a group of African chiefs and community leaders gathered in a small red brick church in Waaihoek, Bloemfontein and formed the South African Native National Congress, renamed the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923. One hundred years on and the church is still standing. It was bought by the South African government in 2011 with a view to turning it into a national museum, and underwent some rapid renovations in order that it could play host to a prayer service, the most moving and symbolic event in a weekend of celebrations marking the ANC's centenary. Other events included an exclusive golf tournament, a lavish gala dinner for 1,500 dignitaries, and a raucous stadium rally for 100,000 of the party faithful.

Dozens of heads of state flew in to attend the celebrations, together with a small army of journalists from around the world. But rather than being swept up in the festivities, the foreign press corps managed to keep what could politely be called a professional distance. Indeed, what was striking about the international media reports of the centenary was how universally negative they were. Virtually all contained significant levels of criticism of the current state of South Africa's governing party, pointing to problems of corruption and infighting, arrogance and failure. Time Magazine looked at 'How the ANC Lost Its Way', whilst an editorial in The Guardian offered few good wishes for 'The ANC's Unhappy Birthday'. Although partially balanced with acknowledgement of the party's epic triumph over apartheid and references to the ANC's numerous achievements since coming to power in 1994, the narrative was surprisingly uniform: that of unfulfilled potential.

This is a far cry from the way in which the ANC was once viewed internationally and by the majority of South Africans. Perhaps today's disappointment and disparagement results partly from the very fact that the ANC was once so loved and admired. Could the accepted wisdom of ANC's 'fall from grace' have been forged in a fire of unrealistic expectations? Or, with the ANC's membership continuing to swell, growing by over 50 per cent between 2007 and 2011 and now topping one million, might the accepted narrative be missing something?

Back in the early 1990s, the newly unbanned ANC was feted by the international press as it made a remarkable transition from liberation movement to political party and government. Under the leadership of figures such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, who sadly died before freedom was realised, and Walter Sisulu, the ANC had a maturity and integrity like no other political party in the world. The ANC leadership helped steer South Africa away from a period of bloody violence and threatened civil war to a peaceful democratic new beginning. Everyone knew that the process of overcoming the legacies of apartheid would be a long and hard one, but on that heady day in May 1994 when Mandela was sworn in as president on the steps of the Union Buildings, Pretoria, it felt as if anything was possible.

The ANC began the process of nation-building by overseeing the writing and implementation of one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, supported by an independent judiciary and a free press. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission began unpacking South Africa's traumatic past, setting a new international benchmark for a post-conflict recovery process. Indefatigable, the new Parliament passed Bill after Bill, transforming the legal system and South Africa's institutions. There was commitment to gender equality, the establishment of an effective human rights framework and, in 2006, South Africa even became the first African country to legalise same sex marriage. There was a dramatic expansion in access to housing, electricity and water, and the black middle class burgeoned. More crucially from the point of view of the world financial institutions, the ANC launched and presided over a period of 18 years of sustained economic growth and economic management, which the global recession was able to suspend for only nine months. …

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