The African National Congress celebrated 100 years on January 8. Its story, from its beginnings as a peaceful liberation movement against the British and Boer (Dutch) colonisers of South Africa, to a militant group that fought apartheid, the abhorrent system of legalised racial segregation, to a party that oversaw a successful transition to a post-apartheid South Africa in a spirit of reconciliation with its white oppressors, is a truly inspiring epic of modern humankind. Even at the height of its armed struggle, the ANC — the oldest political party in Africa, which worked hand in hand with a small but vibrant and upstanding Communist Party — was clear it was fighting for a South Africa where black and white could live as equals. Perhaps the only parallel to the iconic leadership of Nelson Mandela, marked by a total commitment to the struggle, his act of political generosity towards the hated white rulers as South Africa stood at the cusp of liberation, and the absence of vengeance and vendetta in his ideology, is Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent struggle for India’s independence. But to consider the century-long existence of the ANC is also to face the reality of man’s inhumanity against man, not in some distant bygone time, but as recently as two decades ago. That the post-War world order allowed a full 13 years to pass after South Africa enacted the first apartheid laws in 1949 before adopting a resolution in the United Nations against apartheid speaks volumes about the double standards rife then, as they are today. India can take pride in its solidarity with the ANC through those years: it was the first country to cut off trade ties with South Africa. It campaigned to keep South Africa out of the Commonwealth, and constantly highlighted the issue of apartheid on the world stage.
It is true that the ANC’s 17 years in government have led to some loss of sheen. Recent years have seen it dogged by allegations of corruption and cronyism. The economy has slowed down; unemployment and poverty remain big challenges. South Africa was also badly damaged by the HIV-AIDS denialism of Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as President (1999-2008). But on the whole the lot of the majority black population has improved dramatically. South Africa boasts the world’s most progressive Constitution. Successive governments have spent significant resources in delivering basics — schooling, water, housing, and electricity. In its foreign relations, South Africa has attempted to keep its independence. The bottom line is that the country is a much better place today than it was before 1994, and South Africa and the world have the ANC to thank for this. As the dominant political force, it also bears a lot of responsibility for the country’s future.