100 not out – but is the ANC ailing?

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Against all odds, the party of Mandela has reached an historic milestone. But despite its achievements, many South Africans say it has not done enough to help the poor. Alex Duval Smith reports from Mangaung

Mangaung

The paint fumes hit your nostrils.

But in the former Wesleyan chapel next to the old power station on Belcher Road, the smell of fresh paint is not unfamiliar. Until four months ago it was a panel-beater's workshop. Today, the barn-like brick building where the African National Congress was founded at a conference on 8 January 1912 is due to become an unlikely addition to the worldwide pantheon of historic monuments.

But as 6,000 dignitaries – including 46 serving heads of state – arrive in Mangaung, a metropolitan municipality which governs Bloemfontein, for two days of centennial festivities to mark the founding of the South African Native Congress, its successor the ANC is accused of doing a paint job on the many cracks and contradictions that define it after nearly 18 years in power.

In a move to keep things slick, speakers are being kept to a minimum at the 100,000-capacity football stadium tomorrow . There is expected to be a video message from 93-year-old Nelson Mandela, who is reported to be too frail to travel from his Eastern Cape home of Qunu. And only President Jacob Zuma is expected to speak on behalf of the party. The decision is believed to be intended to prevent controversial youth leader Julius Malema from publicly insulting President Zuma.

But the move to silence Mr Malema also means that for the first time at an 8 January commemoration, neither the Women's League, the Veterans' League nor Cosatu, the increasingly vociferous trade union federation, will be given a chance to express themselves verbally. Although he was suspended from the ANC last month after a disciplinary hearing, Mr Malema surprisingly remains in his job, pending an appeal decision.

It is also unclear just how full the stadium will be. In the past few days, ANC dignitaries, including Mr Malema, have toured the Free State and staged "mini-rallies" in a bid to entice South Africans to come to the stadium as part of the 100 million Rand (£7.8m) festivities.

But when secretary-general Gwede Mantashe travelled to the jobless hamlet of Petrusburg on Wednesday, his community hall meeting descended into chaos and he had to be evacuated by police. The Volksblad newspaper reported the furious residents of the town, 80kms from Mangaung, burnt ANC pamphlets and refused to support the party until they were connected to mains water. Unsurprisingly, a visit planned for President Zuma to the town of Thaba Nchu was cancelled the next day.

Not even the run-up to today's dawn cleansing ceremony at the Wesleyan chapel has been trouble-free. The ritual, which involves freshly-brewed sorghum beer and the knife slaughter of several heads of cattle, is being boycotted by opposition politician Kenneth Meshoe. The born-again leader of the African Christian Democratic Party argues that it is heresy for the ANC to invoke the ancestors.

But writer and poet Mongane Wally Serote, who is co-ordinating the ceremony, said it was important for the ANC to check in with the ancestors. "We are giving ourselves time to talk to the founders of this fighting movement," he said. "We will say 'here is how far we have come' and we would like you to give us strength, wisdom and counselling to move forward after these 100 years."

A range of religious leaders is included among the ANC's guests this weekend, including the often outspoken former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu. But neither he nor any of the mainstream religious leaders appear worried that the ancestors will spoil everything.

The chapel, in the Waaihoek area of Mangaung, has not operated as a place of worship since a power station was built next door to it in the 1950s. In fact the nearest smokestack is less than 10m from the apse window, which suggests the chapel may have to be moved to another location the day the giant chimneys are dynamited. For now, they have been embellished, with portraits of ANC leaders. The party's Free State archivist George Tladi said his research had found the Waaihoek area is redolent of the history of the struggle against racism.

"The arrival of the railway in the 1890s brought large numbers of non-whites to Bloemfontein," he said. "A curfew bell was introduced and no non-whites were allowed on the streets after 9pm."

In 1903, the city council decided to forcibly move people out of Waaihoek. The Native Vigilance Committee took up the cases of people displaced without proper compensation, and that committee later merged with other groups fighting for native rights in the Orange Free State. Together with groups in Natal and Transvaal they formed a convention. At the meeting on 8 January 1912 they created an umbrella organisation called the South African Native Congress, which later became the ANC.

Even though the ANC now has a monument which, in its historical significance if not its stature rivals the many structures the Afrikaaners put up around the country, it is not clear how the party will use the chapel. Serote hopes that the ANC slogan of "unity in diversity" will find an expression here. "This is a very important structure," he said. "It not only represents the founding of a fighting movement that brought about peace and stability. The creation of the ANC in this building was the acknowledgement that we are strongest as a unified, if diverse, force."

But the very opposite is true in South Africa today. The ANC and its alliance partners in government, the Communist Party and Cosatu, are not succeeding in beating poverty. Internally, the diversity of opinions is tearing the party apart, despite the latest coat of paint.

Timeline

1912

A group of clergymen, teachers and people from the building trade, previously active in other pressure groups, founds the South African Native Congress on 8 January. It changes its name to the African National Congress in 1923.

1921

The emergence of the Communist Party, which calls for the violent overthrow of the government, launches a debate in the nascent ANC about the means to achieve change.

1948

Apartheid becomes law, bringing with it ever-tougher segregationist legislation.

1959

The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) breaks away from the ANC. The following year, the PAC organises a march in Sharpeville, about 30 miles south of Johannesburg, to protest against laws obliging non-whites to carry pass books. Police open fire, killing at least 60 people. A series of protests ensues, including general strikes. The ANC is banned.

1961

As the movement goes underground it takes up arms. Nelson Mandela launches Umkhonto we Sizwe ("spear of the nation"), the armed wing of the ANC.

1963

Mandela is arrested at Howick in the Natal Highlands. The following year, along with several other freedom activists, he is jailed for life on Robben Island for high treason. The remaining leadership of the ANC goes into exile. One of the prominent exile leaders is Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008).

1976

On 16 June teenagers in Soweto (South Western Townships), just outside Johannesburg, protest against the imposition of Afrikaans in schools. Police open fire and 23 people are left dead, with 220 injured. Riots spread throughout the country.

1990

Nelson Mandela is released in February. Constitutional talks begin.

1991

The apartheid regime is officially abolished.

1994

The first all-race elections take place. The ANC wins a crushing majority. President Nelson Mandela serves for five years. In the three elections that have followed the ANC has never scored less than 60 per cent of the vote.

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