South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) on Friday began celebrations for its centenary, still firmly at the helm of former South African president Nelson Mandela’s all-race democracy, despite losing some of its shine.
Africa’s oldest liberation movement expects 46 heads of state for the bash marking its 100th anniversary today, with 100,000 supporters set to flood into the normally placid central city of Bloemfontein.
“We are the oldest organization in the continent,” South African President Jacob Zuma, who is also president of the ANC, told a cheering crowd after a walk-about on Friday in Botshabelo about 40km from Bloemfontein.
A golf tournament opened the three-day program catering to the ANC’s diverse membership of billionaires and paupers, with events ranging from animal sacrifices and cleansing ceremony to a church service and concerts.
Today, Zuma is scheduled to address a mass rally at the start of a challenging year when he is bidding for re-election as ANC president amid increasing internal threats to his leadership.
Mandela, who at 93 has not made a public appearance since July 2010, will be notably absent.
“He is not coming and we are not expecting him to come,” ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe told SABC public radio. “He is in good spirits, but very, very old.”
A night vigil and songs started on Friday in a marquee at the church where the party was founded on Jan. 8, 1912, and where an ox and two goats were on site to be slaughtered in a traditional ceremony yesterday morning.
After inspiring a global anti-apartheid backlash, the ANC led South Africa peacefully into a “rainbow nation” in 1994, despite fears of civil war, but has more recently faced criticism for abandoning its roots.
The party was founded in Bloemfontein as the South African Native National Congress, and met crushing brutality from apartheid rulers who slapped it with a ban in 1960 and jailed its top leaders four years later.
Nearly 30 years on, the crumbling and isolated regime released icon Mandela to lead the country into its first all-race polls, where the party has enjoyed huge wins ever since in regular polls.
In doing so, it has avoided the pitfalls of fellow African liberation movements which once rallied with the party, such as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF in power in neighboring Zimbabwe for 30 years.
However, the ANC government has had a rocky ride since the Mandela years. While the Nobel peace laureate is idealized into near-sainthood, critics bemoan the party as the shadow of a once-noble movement which has lost its moral compass.
The smears reach the highest level with graft charges dropped against Zuma on the eve of his taking power in 2009, while abuse of taxpayers’ money and reports of flashy lifestyles for the new elite make frequent headlines.
Economically, the party has drawn praise for steering Africa’s biggest economy into safe waters, rolling out new electricity and water supplies, as well as houses and inspiring a new black middle class.
However, it has failed to direct the post-apartheid boom into the hands of the poor, who bear the brunt of shoddy public hospitals and schools, a dangerously high unemployment of 25 percent, violent crime and life in grim shantytowns.