On Sunday, the African National Congress (ANC) celebrated its one-hundredth birthday. Though it is notoriously riddled with factions, all was sweetness and light. South African president and ANC party leader Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, whom Zuma had previously deposed, participated in an elaborate — and largely meaningless — ceremony of reconciliation. Nelson Mandela, the hero and a major architect of the transition to non-racial democracy did not attend because of his fragile health.
The centenary led to reflection about where South Africa and the ANC are going. ANC operatives have appropriated for themselves the mantle of the struggle against apartheid, whether intentionally or not shoving aside the memory of other players, such as the Pan African Congress (PAC) and the Black Consciousness Movement. But, that also means that liberal public opinion holds the ANC accountable for preserving the ideals of that struggle – non-racial democracy and a commitment to public service. A series of squalid scandals and failure by ANC politicians to deliver fundamental services has tarnished the party. So, too, have political missteps such as the ANC government’s refusal to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama to attend the eightieth birthday of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in an effort to curry favor with Beijing. The archbishop, an icon of the liberation movement comparable only to Mandela (though never a member of the ANC), has denounced the party’s lack of morality in some of the same terms he once denounced the old white-supremacist National Party and apartheid.
In South Africa, still dominated by the politics of race, the ANC remains the primary voice of the black population, the overwhelming majority. The emerging black middle class also supports it. That support is not going to go away anytime soon, and the party is likely to remain the principal party of government for a long time. South Africa remains a bastion of white economic privilege, with little redistribution of wealth and profound black poverty despite high-profile black empowerment schemes. It is no surprise that within the party, there are voices calling for radical economic and social policy initiatives that recall Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, including the nationalization of the mines and the seizure without compensation of white-owned land. Such an agenda is difficult to reconcile with South Africa’s (and the ANC’s) historic commitment to the rule of law and liberal democracy. That is a dilemma that the ANC faces.