Tens of thousands of revelers waved the green and gold colours of the African National Congress (ANC), as South Africa’s ruling party and Africa’s oldest liberation movement celebrated its 100th anniversary.
But at the same time, many South Africans said the party had not delivered on its promises since taking power in 1994.
Numerous world leaders and more former heads of state along with African kings and chieftains were among the reported 120,000 people attending the celebrations in the town of Bloemfontein, where the ANC was founded in 1912.
Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, who is just six years younger than his movement, was absent from the celebrations because of his frailty.
The world icon was jailed for 27 years by the racist white government and his organisation was formerly declared a terrorist group by the United States.
The stadium at Bloemfontein overflowed on Sunday with crowds that spilled outside, dancing and singing under a blazing sun.
“This is not only a celebration for the African National Congress and its members only. It is a joyous celebration for all the people of South Africa who with the support of the continent and the world destroyed colonial oppression and apartheid,” Jacob Zuma, head of the ANC and president of South Africa, said at a mass rally in the town on Sunday.
“The ANC mobilised the South African people across the racial, gender and class divide. The ANC, a disciplined force of the left with a bias toward the poor, is also a broad church that is home to all,” he added.
However, the party has been criticised over its apparent failure to bring a better life to most South Africans, as well as the in-fighting and corruption scandals that have embroiled its members in recent years.
On Saturday evening, Zuma held a gala dinner for 1500 guests, as part of a full weekend of lavish celebrations for the centenary of the ANC that angered many of the party’s grass roots members.
After almost 18 years running Africa’s biggest economy, critics say it has done more to enrich its leading members and allies than to help the poor masses. Just under 40 per cent of the adult population are jobless, leaving millions struggling to eke out a living.
Zuma has said the ANC will rule “until Jesus comes” but the next few years will be critical ones for the party that has won a landslide victory in every election for the last 18 years.
However, a warning sign came from the town of Clarens, where stone-throwing protesters smashed the windows of a bus that was to transport supporters to the centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein, 260km away.
Protesters, demanding ANC municipal leaders be fired for failing to deliver basic services like tap water, stoned vehicles and blocked the road to Bloemfontein, local Talk Radio 702 reported.
Issues continue to plague the party. A controversial ANC leader, Youth League head Julius Malema, told a weekend rally around the celebrations that he hopes within 10 years blacks will control south Africa’s mines and farms and whites will be their domestic workers and farm labourers.
Malema also reportedly said ANC leaders were living “the high life” while most South Africans struggle to survive on breadcrumbs. Malema himself has been criticized for building a $2m mansion, with people asking where the money comes from.
Malema used the Youth League’s power to help oust former President Thabo Mbeki, opening the way for Zuma to replace him in 2009, but now wants to see someone else lead the party.
That fight will be fought at the ANC congress in December in Bloemfontein.
In a sign of possible reconciliation, Mbeki is attending the weekend’s centenary celebrations, the first major ANC meeting he has been seen at since his fall from grace amid accusations he was high-handed, too cerebral and removed from ordinary South Africans.