Tens of thousands of supporters of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), rallied to celebrate the ANC’s 100th birthday this weekend. The ANC was established in 1912 in the central South African city of Bloemfontein, where the celebrations were held.
The ANC is credited with being the first inclusive African liberation movement, uniting South Africans from diverse ethnic and economic groups. The ANC led the opposition to apartheid, the state-enforced racial segregation that persisted in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.
The government’s ban on organized opposition meant the ANC was soon classified as a terrorist organization, and many top ANC leaders spent decades in South Africa’s prisons. Most notably, Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison before leading negotiations that led South Africa to a multi-racial democracy.
In 1994, the first multi-racial elections brought an end to apartheid and elected Mandela as South Africa’s first black president. During his term, the ANC-led government committed itself to reforming the country by focusing on social issues that were neglected during the apartheid era, such as unemployment, housing shortages, and crime.
There have been four democratic elections in South Africa since 1994, and each victorious candidate has been a member of the ANC. This is both an indication of the ANC’s dominance in South Africa, and the reason why the weekend’s celebrations were met with criticism that the ANC has not done enough to keep the promises made in 1994 to combat ongoing problems of poverty, inequality and unemployment.
Some observers of this weekend’s celebrations are concerned that the ANC is losing its inclusive, non-tribal and non-racial ethos, enriching the few, mostly politically connected, rather than the poor majority.
In the view of some critics, ANC leaders are increasingly chosen by a small group of people, selected for how best they can capture competing interests. Opposition parties are either poorly organized or racially homogeneous and have little chance to secure broad support, so the ANC will likely remain unchallenged for some time.
Without real opposition, change must come from within. ANC party conferences in June and December are an opportunity for the ANC to return to its roots and maintain South Africa as a global example for genuine democracy, equitable economic development and peaceful racial integration.