The ANC was lauded for its moral authority in the fight against apartheid, but many veterans of that era are deeply disillusioned by the party’s actions today.
As delegates prepare to elect a new leader to succeed Jacob Zuma, the ANC faces falling public support, a reputation for corruption and the threat of a damaging split between rival factions.
The celebrated activists who stood alongside ANC leader Nelson Mandela in the struggle against white-minority rule say the party bears little semblance to its storied glory days, given its current reputation for putting personal interests above national needs.
“I am not proud of being an ANC member that is led by this lot. I am proud of the history of the ANC,” Frank Chikane, a prominent figure in the anti-apartheid fight, told AFP.
Chikane, a priest who grew up in Soweto, led protests through the 1970s and 1980s, and was regularly detained by the state – as well as being targeted in an assassination attempt when police poisoned his clothes.
“What is happening out there now is not the ANC,” he said. “In the past we thought the enemy was outside, now the enemy is inside.”
He urged party members to “stop the rot” when they gather to elect a leader and other senior officials at a five-day conference starting on Saturday.
The Zuma legacy
Much of the criticism of the current ANC focuses on Zuma, who is seen as backing ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to succeed him as party chief.
Her main rival is Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, with the vote result expected on Sunday or early next week.
Zuma, who has ruled since 2009, will remain as the country’s president ahead of the 2019 general election.
He has been engulfed by multiple graft scandals, including being found guilty in 2016 of violating the Constitution after he resisted paying back public money used to lavishly upgrade his private residence.
The ANC has consistently shrugged off calls to act against Zuma and its lawmakers have voted down several motions of no confidence against him.
“The leadership of the last decade has ridden roughshod over the ANC constitution,” Trevor Manuel, another ANC stalwart, said in a stinging speech last month.
“We need an ANC that will recognise that it has lost its way,” added Manuel, who campaigned against apartheid governments before becoming Mandela’s respected finance minister.
“Right now, it appears too self-serving to be interested in the future of South Africa and the needs of its people,” he said.
Some analysts say the party risks a formal split between the Zuma and anti-Zuma camps before the 2019 election.
In local elections last year, its vote fell to 54%, its lowest ever, while it lost control of three key cities to the opposition DA, including Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Stalwarts speak out
In 2016, some veterans – including Denis Goldberg, one of Mandela’s closest allies dating back to the 1960s – founded the “For the sake of our future” group to try to influence their party.
In an open letter ahead of the conference it said the “leadership of the ANC is paralysed and unable to deal with ill-discipline, incompetence and corruption that point directly to the highest office in the land”.
Zuma himself is a stalwart – he was imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island for 10 years.
But Sipho Pityana, a former activist who became a wealthy mining businessman, told AFP it was a “disgrace” that the ANC had failed to remove the president from power.
“The image of Zuma has become the image of the ANC,” Pityana said.
“The ANC needs to accept that it is morally bankrupt and corrupt to the core, and reversing the damage is going to take years.”
Dlamini-Zuma’s critics say she would be a proxy for her husband and would protect him from prosecution over graft charges, as well as deepen the corruption that has marred his rule.
The great anti-apartheid hero archbishop Desmond Tutu was never a member of the ANC – but in 2011 he launched an emotional attack on the party which helped to end white-minority rule.
“Our government is worse than the apartheid government because at least you would expect it with the apartheid government,” he said.
“You, President Zuma and your government, do not represent me. I am warning you… one day we will pray for the defeat of the ANC.”
(Photo credit: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)