Party of Mandela, S.Africa's ANC marks 100 years
South Africa's mighty African National Congress celebrates its centenary on Sunday, still firmly at the helm of Nelson Mandela's all-race democracy despite losing some of its shine.
Africa's oldest liberation movement expects 46 heads of state at its 100th anniversary bash that starts Friday, with 100,000 supporters set to flood into the normally placid central city of Bloemfontein.
A golf tournament kicks off the three-day programme catering to the ANC's diverse members of billionaires and paupers, with events ranging from an animal sacrifice and cleansing ceremony to a church service and concerts.
On Sunday, President Jacob Zuma will address a mass rally at the start of a challenging year when he is bidding for re-election as party boss amid increasing internal threats to his leadership.
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan are among leaders that have confirmed attendance, alongside worldwide anti-apartheid movements. They will be greeted in a city festooned with street banners offering thanks to the ANC's foreign supporters.
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 of abandoning its struggle roots.
"This is perhaps the most remarkable liberation movement of the last century," said Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC parliamentarian who resigned over a muzzled probe into a multi-billion-rand arms deal.
"The disappointment is how quickly the ANC moved from that politics of the impossible to practise politics as normal, as they're practised throughout the world."
The party was founded in Bloemfontein on January 8, 1912, 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 ANC icon Nelson 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 Mugabe's ZANU-PF in power in neighbouring Zimbabwe for 30 years.
But the ANC government has faced a rocky ride since the Mandela years. While the frail 93-year-old is idealised into near-sainthood, critics bemoan the party as the shadow of a once-noble movement which has lost its moral compass.
The smears reach to 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.
There is also growing unease over fears of media curbs and filling of watchdog posts.
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.
But 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 joblessness rate of 25 percent, violent crime and life in grim shantytowns.
South Africa was fortunate to have the ANC as a clear organised voice for the majority at the critical negotiations time, said analyst Steven Friedman.
"But do I regard it as the noble embodiment of the ideals of South African society? Absolutely not. It's a political organisation with all the messiness and the defects which go with any political organisation," he said.
© 2012 AFP