The African National Congress, Africa’s oldest liberation movement and – for the past 22 years – the ruling party of South Africa, has celebrated its 104th anniversary.
It is a party whose rich history is headlined by such luminaries as Chief Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. But it is the party’s present challenges that have inspired President Jacob Zuma’s calls for “the democratic expression of the will of the majority to be protected by all citizens”.
“In history, especially when the ANC was banned, the January 8 statement by the ANC president was aimed at simulating mass uprising,” Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst, said after Friday’s anniversary.
And while the mood was celebratory, the overriding message remains: The ANC must mobilise if it is to remain relevant.
Rumours of a rift between Zuma and his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, have captured the attention of pundits who predict an unseemly struggle for dominance within the ANC this year.
Fissures in the party are, however, more pervasive.
In the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal, which has been a Zuma stronghold in recent years, the election of office bearers in the party’s provincial ranks in November led to protests against the newly elected provincial leadership with calls for a new election.
“We are winning on issues of unity in the province. But we want to consolidate the idea of what the ANC means,” Sihle Zikalala, the new chairperson of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal told Al Jazeera this week.
The nub of the dispute between Zikalala and his predecessor, Senzo Mchunu, appears to be a question of influencing the battle to succeed Jacob Zuma.
Fakir insists, however, that fractures within the ANC are not a new phenomenon and have been intrinsic to the party’s history.
“The ANC was never a homogenous party,” he said, adding that the factions within the party are becoming more pronounced.
The party is still expected to rise above its internal squabbles and clandestine power struggles to contest the upcoming municipal elections.
“Yes, there are different groupings within the ANC – different perspectives,” Ivor Sarakinsky, of the Wits School of Governance at the University of Witwatersrand, told Al Jazeera. “But they will all unite around the forthcoming local government elections.”
While the party has enjoyed a healthy advantage over opposition parties in all major metropolitan areas except for Cape Town – which is held by the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance – the party is expected to be pushed more rigorously by opposition parties in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth this year.
The rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters, led by the former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, and the growth of the Democratic Alliance dented the ANC’s parliamentary majority in the last election in 2014.
But Sarakinsky says the loss of electoral support for the ANC has been building steadily over the years.
And as the ANC is pressured, its record on service delivery will come under scrutiny.
Fakir says the ANC has actually done well in delivering services to South African people – and not just in the extension of basic services, but also in the improvement of infrastructure.
“I think people are blind to how much has in fact been done. It is the South African way. It is a demanding society, but it is also a very diverse society with very diverse demands,” Fakir says.
The ability of the ANC to improve and expand service delivery will, however, be severely affected by the economy.
The South African economy grew at a paltry 1.5 percent rate in 2015, with a similar figure projected for 2016.
Sarakinsky says if businesses do not expand and employment does not increase, the consequent shrinking tax base will tighten the reins on the government’s social programmes.
“If you want to drive social programmes like housing, education and health, you need a tax base. If that tax base shrinks, like it is currently, then there’s just less money to do all these good things,” he said.
And herein lies the challenge for the ANC.
“How can you make promises when you don’t have the finances available to deliver?” Sarakinsky asks.
No country for the young
At the heart of the party’s struggles lies the question of whether the ANC is in tune with the country’s youth.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in December 2015, former ANC President Kgalema Motlanthe said: “When you are in touch and you have the finger on the pulse of communities and sections of the population, you are able to provide the leadership in a manner that channels these energies correctly and so on.”
The student protests against the rising cost of university tuition in 2014 took the ANC by surprise. But it is also significant to note that at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, for example, the protests were led by ANC youth members.
So at the height of the #FeesMustFall protests, as they were dubbed, Mcebo Dlamini, a controversial but prominent ANC member at Wits University, demanded that the ANC leadership outside the party’s headquarters in Johannesburg come off a raised platform to listen to the students.
“ANC, come down to the people,” he said.
In that one statement, much was said about the ability of the ANC to open itself up to dissent within its structures.
It also said a lot about the ANC’s representation of itself as the purveyor of the sentiment of the majority of South Africa.
For the ANC chairperson in KwaZulu-Natal, Sihle Zikalala, the ANC’s legitimacy cannot be denied.
“The ANC still represents the views and aspirations of the majority of South Africans,” he said.
But in a rapidly changing political space dominated by young people, the ANC will be forced to show that its 104-year-old history is not an impediment to listening to the rising voices of South African youth.