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ANC turns hundred

December 31, 2011

THE South African president, Jacob Zuma, will be joined by foreign heads of state where it all began: a Wesleyan church in Waaihoek, Bloemfontein. At the stroke of midnight, he will step forward to light the 'centenary flame' symbolising the resistance that gave hope to all of Africa.

The African National Congress, the oldest liberation movement on the continent, turns 100 years old on Jan 8. A year of celebrations costing at least 100 million rand will kick off with a 'centenary golf day', a dinner, a church service, a centennial address by Zuma, a performance of the ANC's history in song and dance and a shindig for 100,000 people.

Under the black, green and gold banner reading '100 years of selfless struggle', there will be much lionising of heroes such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. But in some quarters there will also be nostalgia for old certainties, a suspicion that today's leaders do not measure up to the titans of old, and a fear that South Africa's governing party enters its second century tarnished and poised to tear itself apart.

“One hundred years should be the ANC's biggest celebration, to have survived this long and be in government, but it's now a party in crisis,” said William Gumede, author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC. “It's a bittersweet victory. This may be the pinnacle but now it's all downhill.”

Symbolically perhaps, the ANC has been forced to covertly buy its own birthplace at a hugely inflated price so it can take centre stage in the commemorations. In July, it spent 10 million rand of public funds to regain the Wesleyan church in Waaihoek from a man who acquired it for just 280,000 rand eight years ago, according to South Africa's Mail & Guardian . There is now a race to complete costly renovations before the centenary flame is lit.

The church stands in what used to be a black township in Bloemfontein in Free State province. It was here in 1912, that businessmen, clergymen, journalists, lawyers and teachers held a political meeting that laid the foundations of the South African Native National Congress, renamed the ANC in 1923.

The party's cause came from unlikely DNA in the shape of Britain, and Mahatma Gandhi. The latter arrived in South Africa in 1893 and blazed a trail with resistance campaigns against colonial rule. “This was the progenitor in a sense of the ANC,” said Allister Sparks, a veteran journalist and political analyst.

Britain had angered black activists and intellectuals by handing power to Afrikaners (descended from Dutch and German settlers) when the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910. “It was the betrayal of black people,” Sparks added. — The Guardian, London