BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa (Reuters) - A black bull bellows and snorts in its death throes, sacrificed with a ceremonial spear in an age-old African cleansing ritual to ward off evil spirits and appease the souls of ancestors.
South African President Jacob Zuma led the purification ceremony at the weekend at the site where the ruling party he leads, the African National Congress, was born 100 years ago. The birth launched decades of exile, protest and armed struggle that finally ended apartheid white-minority rule in 1994, when elections ushered in a multi-racial democracy.
“It’s important that it be cleansed,” said Baba Ndungane, a Zulu “sangoma” or traditional healer, speaking near the Waaihoek Wesleyan Church.
The brick, tin-roofed building where a century ago Africa’s oldest liberation movement was formed in a black township in the city of Bloemfontein is now dwarfed by the looming towers of a disused power station.
Ndungane, in a beaded headband and a leopard-print robe, said the area needed cleansing because it may have witnessed robberies, rapes and violence over the years.
As the ANC celebrated its 100th birthday on Sunday in a 100 million-randcommemoration that included a huge banquet for invited heads of state and guests, a splurge of celebrity music shows and even a golf tournament, many were clamouring for the party itself to clean up its act after nearly 18 years at the head of Africa’s most powerful economy.
Under such legendary leaders as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, who endured persecution and imprisonment, the ANC gained near-mythical status. Once the yoke of apartheid was thrown off, it began ruling South Africa in a blaze of international goodwill that viewed it as moral beacon for a troubled continent and world.
Close to two decades later, this image has dimmed as critics inside and outside the country and movement accuse ANC leaders of indulging in the spoils of office, squandering and raping mineral resources and engaging in vicious power struggles.
As party leaders rallied in Bloemfontein at the weekend under self-congratulatory slogans such as “Unity in Diversity” and “100 Years of Selfless Struggle”, in the nearby farming town of Thaba Nchu, two anti-apartheid veterans in their 80s seethed at what they saw as the betrayal of their ideals.
“Selfless rule, my foot!” spluttered 84-year-old Sally Motlana, widow of the late Dr Nthato Motlana, an anti-apartheid activist who was Mandela’s doctor.
Speaking to Reuters in the house of one of the earlier presidents of the ANC, James Sebe Moroka, she and Moroka’s daughter-in-law Gladys Moroka, 80, railed against Zuma and his government, criticising the power struggle that forced out president Thabo Mbeki and attacking the self-enrichment “gravy train” that they said tarnished the top echelons of the party.
“The only thing that makes me proud of the ANC is the liberation of the people of South Africa. But the present government has nothing that makes me proud,” said Motlana, who was a prominent anti-apartheid activist in her own right. “The anger in me could kill a human being.”
She and fellow ANC stalwart Moroka believe the party, which still commands huge support and respect, has lost its way, neglecting the broad democratic consensus that was one of its biggest strengths against apartheid and straying from Mandela’s vision of a “rainbow nation” uniting all, regardless of race.
“Where is the rainbow nation at this (centenary) conference?” said Motlana, a lifetime vice-president of the South African Council of Churches who was imprisoned in the 1970s under apartheid. A missionary-educated Anglican, she accused Zuma and his ruling group of espousing narrow factionalism and blasted the Zulu rituals - such as the cleansing - with which he likes to surround himself.
“I didn’t go to jail for that,” Motlana said, adding she was not sure she would even continue to vote for the ANC.
Although there is no question that emotional support for the ANC, its history and its ideals remains high among a majority of South Africans, anger at the luxurious lifestyles and conspicuous consumption of many of the ruling elite and their business backers burns strongly.
So does a widespread sense that the ANC has not delivered on its post-apartheid promise to provide “a better life for all”.
“I’m a staunch member of the ANC, but I don’t want to go to Bloemfontein,” said Rebecca Motsele, a feisty, diminutive 76-year-old resident of Soweto township, just outside Johannesburg.
She complained the government was not doing enough to help the poor and hungry and create jobs for the some 40 percent of South Africans who are jobless, most of them young.
“They should come and have a look at our houses,” said Motsele, stabbing the air for emphasis with her umbrella. “I grew up with the ANC, I’m very disappointed,” she said.
“We are still struggling, people are not getting jobs, people are still suffering. (The ANC) must come and deliver for us,” said Soweto resident Mzwandile Sifile, 29, who said he was trying to set up his own gardening and cleaning business.
Sifile said his approaches to local authorities for contracts for his business were met with requests for bribes. Others say applications for housing also require bribes to be successful in a pervasive atmosphere of graft where nearly all transactions demand cuts and kickbacks.
Such practices have spawned a class of “tenderpreneurs” - politicians and their business allies who make a living from taking commissions for awarding government contracts.
In a lengthy centenary commemoration speech on Sunday at the World Cup soccer stadium in Bloemfontein, Zuma acknowledged that the party needed to bring in new ideas and new energy and work to improve the quality of life of the majority.
“We have identified the triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality as needing attention,” he said.
Soweto, a township that was the site of an uprising in 1976 that galvanised resistance to apartheid, has however seen undeniable progress since the ANC took power.
A gritty dust still blows down from the old mine dumps that surround the township, but housing has improved, pavements and parks have been built, modern shopping malls have gone up and tourists visit iconic locations of the anti-apartheid fight.
Such improvements can been seen in similar townships across the country, such as Batho Location in Bloemfontein, a settlement of modest but solid mostly brick houses that boasts solar-powered street lighting.
“It was shacks before,” said Godswill Sefotlhelo, 39, a local ANC member who is anxious that visitors recognise the party’s achievements in government. “Slowly but surely, the ANC is doing its best. You can’t help everyone in one day, but it is getting there,” he said.
But he acknowledges people want more, and they want it faster. “The most important thing is service delivery - electricity, homes, water, schools and clinics”.
And he too sees the threat of corruption from within the party. “People are looking at their own interest first, that’s the corruption happening now. Everyone is trying to make what they want before their term finishes,” Sefotlhelo said. “As the ANC, we must root out all the wrong elements.”
“That thing called money, it crucified Christ,” said Motlana
in her indictment of the ANC’s current malaise.
ANC officials say President Zuma has moved to tackle graft. In October, he fired two cabinet ministers and suspended the national police chief after they were named in a government corruption report.
But even allies say Zuma has done too little. South Africa has slid to 64th in the world in Transparency International’s latest index of perceived corruption, from 38th in 2001.
Although Zuma says the ANC will rule “until Jesus Christ comes”, observers say it risks a slow erosion of support unless it addresses its internal divisions, cuts out corruption and listens to popular grievances.
Recent elections have seen the opposition Democratic Alliance DA.L chipping away at the ANC’s dominance, although it could still take decades for an opposition party to win power.
While dutifully congratulating the ANC on its centenary, the DA did not miss the chance to criticise. “This historic event also calls for introspection and reflection. Without the values articulated by Nelson Mandela, the ANC also risks becoming a rudderless vessel,” DA leader Helen Zille said in a statement.
At the centenary gala dinner in Bloemfontein on Saturday, there was little mention of the rot within the movement as speaker after speaker - from African allies of the anti-apartheid struggle such as former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda to surviving ANC veterans - hailed the heroes and sacrifices that ended white minority rule.
“April 1994 brought us dignity in South Africa,” Ahmed Kathrada, a former political prisoner who like Mandela spent years in apartheid jails, told the official celebration.
In an outward show of unity, Mbeki, whose public appearances have been rare since he was humiliatingly ousted as ANC leader in a turbulent 2007 party conference, and Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela, the combative estranged wife of Nelson Mandela, attended the gala dinner along with more than a dozen African heads of state.
But such gestures cannot paper over the divisions, most visibly the power struggle between supporters of Mbeki, the moodily cerebral two-term president who spent most of his life under apartheid in exile and is from the Xhosa ethnic group, and Zuma, South Africa’s most prominent Zulu politician and a former ANC intelligence chief who served time in jail with Mandela on Robben Island.
Stephen Ellis, a historian at the African Studies Center at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands who has written about the ANC, says that in the decades before it took power “anti-apartheid ... was the glue” that gave the movement political coherence.
With apartheid gone, more material considerations hold sway. “The glue that holds them together now is that they’re in government, and so have enormous powers of patronage,” Ellis told Reuters.
He says that when Mandela negotiated the transition from apartheid with South Africa’s white rulers, his former jailers, what was agreed was a historic compromise aimed at avoiding a race war. “This was hailed as the negotiated Revolution, the miracle, and Mandela nailed his colours to that mast.”
But this compromise also involved the modification and postponement of some of the redistributive socialist goals of the ANC - enshrined in a 1955 Freedom Charter and especially cherished by a communist-dominated exile group of the party that had sheltered for years in the dusty compounds of the Zambian capital Lusaka and in other African capitals.
Ellis says that, after nearly 18 years of largely market-oriented economic policies that have helped keep South Africa as the economic powerhouse of a restive continent, there are now calls from some parts of the party to finish what many see as the “incomplete revolution”.
One of those who has most energetically espoused the pursuit of more revolutionary goals is the ANC’s notorious “bad boy” and now-suspended Youth League leader Julius Malema. His defiant demands for the seizure of white-owned land and nationalisation of the mines, coupled with a barrage of mocking personal invective against Zuma and his presidency, earned him a five-year suspension by the ANC’s disciplinary committee in November.
He is appealing the suspension, aware that his populist pitch has struck a chord among South Africa’s restive, poor unemployed youth, many of whom seem willing to overlook his penchant for flashy clothes and expensive cars and watches sit awkwardly with his rhetoric of revolutionary redistribution.
Heeding party calls not to rock the centenary boat, Malema kept a relatively low profile at the Bloemfontein event, making public calls for ANC unity and addressing some local rallies.
While older ANC cadres tut-tut over his verbal incontinence and open disrespect for the senior leadership, not all see him in a completely negative light.
“I don’t say that small boy (Malema) is right all the time, but he can certainly pinpoint mistakes,” chuckles ANC veteran Motlana, who knows a thing or two about defiance campaigns.
So while unity slogans filled the air at the Bloemfontein events, few doubt that a bitter leadership battle will brew this year leading up to the party’s conference to elect a leader in the same “city of roses” in December.
Most analysts think that amid the current in-fighting, Zuma is still likely to obtain a second term, heading off challenges from followers of Malema and disgruntled Mbeki backers.
But the uplifting days of “Unity in Diversity” seem over.
“It’s certainly more uncertain than it’s been since 1994,” said historian Ellis.
Motlana added: “There’s going to be fireworks.”
Additional reporting By Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Kevin Liffey