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The African National Congress centenary: a long and difficult journey



    1. Based in Johannesburg, is a part-time professor at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.
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    • I am indebted to Christopher Saunders and Peter Limb for valuable comments, and to Albert Grundlingh and Sandra Swart for insightful discussions. I thank the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study for hosting me as a fellow for three months, during which period this article was completed.


The African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa was formed under difficult conditions, facing a Union government bent on extending racist laws and an unsympathetic British government to whom repeated petitions were addressed without success. By the 1930s petitioning had run its course and the organization collapsed. In the 1940s, however, structures were established which laid the basis for mass activities in the following decade. In the 1950s a range of campaigns of resistance gave rise to a large ANC constituency. It also elaborated an alternative democratic vision through adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955, after a process of lengthy consultation. The document became a rallying point for a range of democratic organizations. After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 the ANC was banned, but continued to operate illegally. It embarked on short-lived armed activities, leading to the arrest and exile of its leading figures. The years that followed saw further setbacks as the organization sought to establish itself outside, and in small underground units inside, the country. After the Soweto uprising of 1976, many young people joined the ANC's armed wing and carried out attacks on apartheid installations. Significantly, this period also saw the revival of mass public political activities on an unprecedented scale. A combination of internal and external pressures against apartheid paved the way for negotiations, resulting in democratic elections in 1994. The ANC now governs, having fundamentally, albeit unevenly, transformed the lives of many—but continued poverty, unemployment, extensive corruption and criminality risk leading to a deep systemic crisis affecting governance as a whole.